redux: “We could almost smell the Cheremosh River.”

Note: in an hour we’ll head down the Coast to do a few errands before we pick up our Ottawa family at the ferry. We’ll take two vehicles so they can have one, the car seats already waiting in the back seat. A year ago they were here and we made varenyky. This time too! And I’ve left the note at the end of the extract from the essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”, but am happy now to tell you that it will be published as part of Blue Portugal by the University of Alberta Press next spring.



The kitchen was fragrant with dill and scallions. We were making varenyky, based on recipes from Olia Hercules’s wonderful Mamushka, but adapted to what we had available to us. We had dry curd cheese and cream cheese, potatoes, thick-cut bacon, and frozen sweet dark cherries. We had savoy cabbage to braise for a side dish, and beets with their tops. Manon and I stuffed the dough and pinched the triangles closed, 8 cookie sheets of them, and those rested for a few hours on top of the freezer while the beets were roasted for salad, and the cabbage cut into thin slivers with apples and shallots. John set the table outside, under the grapes and wisteria, and there were bottles of Bricker cider, Prosecco chilled in the cooler, and a gooseberry galette for dessert.

I grew up with aunts and a grandmother who made delicious pedaha–what we called pierogi. My grandmother made fresh cheese to stuff them with and she also used sweet golden plums for a dessert version. We ate this food when we visited Edmonton in summer. I remember lying in grass and hearing the women make the pedaha together in the kitchen, windows open for any breeze that might find its way into the hot room. In my kitchen with Manon, with the sound of the little boys making a mural of our patio with sidewalk chalk, I knew what the women must have felt in those days: a sense of familial history. They were doing what they’d been taught to do, anticipating appetites and the prospect of long meals on summer evenings with far-flung family returned for a visit.

In Ukraine last September, I kept seeing versions of families that might have been my own. I even met some members of the family that stayed in Ivankivtsi. And I knew that those who were eating under vines as we passed their farm on our way to our hotel above Kosiv were remembered by others living elsewhere.  We could be them. We are sometimes the couple with the apple basket, sometimes the children asking to return. Sometimes we are all together at a table and the food we eat is the food I dreamed about as a child, dreamed of its creation. Driving from B.C. to Edmonton, I could already smell the dill and the sharp onions being sliced in the capable hands of the women.

At each farm, someone is picking apples, by ladder, by filling a bucket with windfalls. A man, a woman with a child, a couple, with a basket between them. Stooks stand in the fields. Horses graze, dogs sleep as though dead in the dry grass. There are pumpkins still in the gardens, heaps of watermelons, horseradish leaves lush by the houses. At the farm where we turn to climb the road to Sokilske, an old table is balanced under a pear tree and a family is seated around it. The man raises his glass. A horse lifts its head as our wheels spin briefly, gaining traction for the steep rise. We can almost smell the Cheremosh River. And listen—there are chickadees in the sunflowers. Chickens scatter at the side of the road.

–from “Museum of the Multitude Village”, an essay from an unpublished collection.

the party’s over

the party's over

Last night I dreamed it was my job to vacuum all the dead needles that have rained down from the big Douglas firs around our house. Never have they shed like this before. There are small drifts of them everywhere. And it was my job to vacuum them. I didn’t know where to begin.

the party’s over
we had a good time
we danced on the tables midnight til dawn
til all the time was up and the good stuff gone

Do you ever have the feeling that the party’s over? This morning, swimming, I thought of Eliza Gilkyson’s song of that title, from her album Beautiful World. I thought of all the fires in our province, and down the Coast as far as Mexico. My favourite places–Lytton, Ashcroft, Spences Bridge, Walhachin, the communities on Highway 97 north (Flat Lake, Canim Lake, Lone Butte) and south, east (Westwold, Monte Creek, Sicamous)–threatened or burning or gone.

we burned all the kindling, passed the bottle around
watched the last coals dwindling
and the ice melting down

We can’t say we didn’t know. Scientists have been reporting the climate crisis for years now. Crisis, emergency: we’re here. A few weeks ago, our thermometer hit 39 degrees. Friends up the highway said theirs recorded over 40. This is the temperate west coast, home of rainforests, an abundance of water, salmon. Our gooseberries cooked on the bush. The Douglas firs began to turn orange, not so much from drought–they can withstand some dry spells–but from the sustained heat. Billions of tidal creatures died on the shores in the heatwave.

the party’s over, we had a blast
brought in the lawyers to cover our ass
left a note for the children to clean up the mess
the party’s over

I dreamed it was my job to vacuum the fir needles and I didn’t know where to begin.

talk to me of Mendocino

wild coast

Some days a song will find a way into your heart, into your soul, into everything you do, so that as you choose cheeses at the grocery store in Sechelt, you are humming it, in the library a woman looks at you in surprise because you’re singing quietly in the fiction stacks, and as you watered the tomatoes, late because of leaving early for errands down the Coast, you were singing not quite as quietly, moving the hose from one plant to the next.

In 2013, my mathematician-son spent the fall term at Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute as part of a cohort working on optimal transport. Why not come for a few days, he asked. His wife Cristen flew down several times — they had just bought a house in Edmonton and moved into it as he was packing his bags for Berkeley — and at one point Cristen’s parents went too. And in November we drove down the Interstate 5 as far as Portland and then headed over to the Pacific Coast Highway, a route we’d taken earlier in our separate lives, remembering it slightly differently, and eager to revisit. At one point I heard one of my favourite songs on the radio, Kate and Anna McGarrigle singing “Talk to Me of Mendocino”, and I was taken back to an earlier trip, in, oh, 1976, driving that coast highway with two friends. We went to Berkeley on that trip too and camped at Big Sur and I felt I was seeing a world so filled with promise that I remember crying in my bunk at night (we’d borrowed my dad’s little camper for the trip).

We drove, in 2013, through a storm and spent our second night of travel in Coos Bay where I watched a YouTube of the McGarrigles, looking out the window at huge raindrops coursing down the glass.

And it’s on to Southbend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remain

We didn’t end up in Mendocino. Tired of driving through rain and wind on the Oregon Coast, we turned off to Ferndale instead. But the song was in my mind and I kept humming it as we drove to Berkeley.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”

Today, now, at home, I am remembering that trip, remembering how the woman I was then was also the girl 35 years earlier, longing and yearning, though I couldn’t have said what for exactly. When I was 21, it might have been love. When I was nearly 60, I wasn’t yearning for love but for some sense that everything I’d done with my life mattered; and I was yearning to see my son, who felt very far away, though by the time we were in Ferndale, it was only 262 miles, and we pulled into our little rented flat in time for an afternoon drink on the tiny balcony.

berkeley balcony

Brendan told us that Cristen was pregnant and the whole visit felt celebratory in the way a week can be when you know everything is changing and you are looking forward to stepping into a new world.

And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more
Talk to me of Mendocino, talk to me of Coos Bay, of Edmonton, of Victoria, of Ottawa and the Madawaska River, talk to me of any place in summer, with ocean winds and water to swim in, but don’t talk to me of forest fires and water shortages, I am tired to death of heat and drought, I am tired to death of the lonely places we were driven to during the last 18 months, the sad nights, the quiet (though I love quiet), the masks, the world’s terror which was also ours. Mine. Talk to me of  the campfire version of the song on the McGarrigle Hour, the cd I was listening to this morning when the song entered my system as sweetly as cool air on a warm evening. Talk to me, won’t you.

watching the young queen

This is the summer when I realize how much I don’t know. Don’t know about boat engines, don’t know about bees. I’m trying to learn about both. The boat engines I’ll save for another day. But the bees? One species at a time, slow and steady.

Every morning I sit here with my coffee.

red chair

And every morning the oregano is lively with Bombus species, sometimes 4 or 5 quite distinct ones. If I pay attention, I see that there are slightly different behaviours at play. There are bees who will tolerate another coming to the blossoms they are at work on. A single head of flowering oregano might host 3 bees at a time.

But yesterday morning I saw a species I’d never seen before. It was very black, with a yellow head resembling the Corinthian helmets worn by hoplites, or citizen-soldiers, in ancient Greece. It had a single thin ring of yellow right at the end of its posterior. I posted a quick (and blurry) photograph on Twitter, tagging a woman who knows about bees, and learned it was Bombus vosnesenskii, the yellow-faced bumblebee.

bombus voznesenskii

One of the bees was nearly twice the size of the other and it was almost certainly a young queen. She tolerated no other bees on her blossoms, not even the smaller one of her own species. I watched her forage, hoping she would discover the new umbels of tomato flowers, replacing the ones that burned off during the terrible heat of two weeks ago. This species is an important pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes apparently. I watched but the oregano was too luscious to leave. She made her methodical way from flower to flower, her pollen baskets golden.

I’d like to at least learn the species I see when I sit in my red chair with my coffee. There are honey bees around too. I’ll try to figure them out as well. I remember loving book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics, devoted entirely to bees:

Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now
Take up the tale.

Over the years, I’ve let the oregano and lemon balm self-seed and spread. My careless style of living, as gardener at least, means that there are bees at every turn. Listen! The humming is beautiful. Drawn by scent and memory, they come to the herbs, the lemon blossoms, the flowering tomatoes, and maybe by now they recognize me too, the woman who scoops up the fallen ones, placing them carefully on geraniums, hoping they’ll recover.

And let green cassias and far-scented thymes,
And savory with its heavy-laden breath
Bloom round about…

bombus voznesenskii2

That young queen might be the only one to overwinter after the first frost. I don’t know where the nest is but maybe that will be the logical step in this process, following the bees with their laden pollen baskets, wishing I had wings myself.

I will trace me back
To its prime source the story’s tangled thread,
And thence unravel.



When I begin to write something long–an essay, a novella, a novel–I find myself gathering materials without any clear idea of how they’ll be used. It’s like textile work in some ways, like quilting, or at least the way I quilt. Assorted fabric, maybe some linen, some French cottons, old jeans, a scrap of dupioni silk; buttons; a memory of a quilt in a window in a dusty town passed through 20 years ago where a particularly lovely yellow had been paired with soft blue. A story. A scribbler (remember them?) in a tiny museum in Egmont in which a group of children from Doriston where the school population fluctuated between 8 and 12 wrote about their community in the early 1930s. An Easthope engine. The city of Lviv. So ok. I began to write about Lviv almost exactly a month ago, writing a scene in which two women connect, one in Ukraine and one in a small coastal community, I thought perhaps Sooke on Vancouver Island. I wrote some pages and then I didn’t know how to continue. I didn’t have the right mass, the right elements, not enough of them, though I didn’t know how many that might be.

Yesterday we took a friend to lunch in Egmont, stopping first at the Heritage Centre so he could see the collection. Our son Forrest, a museum curator and historian, once said the little museum bats well above average for its exhibits and focus. Our friend agreed. I did what I always do which is to turn the pages of the Doriston scribbler in its protective mylar, entranced by the careful work of the children who wrote about their community, its natural history, its celebrations, its importance. I asked the man working in the museum if I could arrange to have it scanned and he was so enthusiastic. I confessed I am a writer and somehow I’d like to do something with the document although I wasn’t sure what or how. Then I looked at some more things and one of them was the green Easthope engine. If you live in a fishing community and you know older fishermen, you’ve heard stories about Easthopes. They were fairly economical, fairly reliable, and were common sources of power for fishing vessels in the 1920s and 30s. Looking at the Easthope yesterday, I felt that old familiar shimmer. Remember this, take account of this. It’s important.

If you’d asked me a few days ago what Lviv, Doriston, a green Easthope engine in the Egmont Heritage Centre have in common, I’d have rolled my eyes. Nothing. But somehow they do. Somehow I will find out by writing about them singly and together and will figure out a pattern, a coherence. When I came home from our lunch on a deck overlooking Jervis Inlet, I opened the file I began a month ago, the one with the two women, one in Lviv and one in a small coastal community that is no longer Sooke but Egmont, and because the file only had a note on it and no title, I typed a title that gives me such excitement and anticipation: Easthope. (And yes, mine was that voice in the dark last night, asking John if he was asleep. Not quite, he replied drowsily. Can you describe how single and two cylinder engines work, kind of simply? Tomorrow, was the answer.)

the light is our clock

bums up

I was thinking this morning of all the summers we have lived here, the damp ones, the hot ones, the ones where our house was simply a shell, window openings without glass, the busy ones, the quiet ones, and I found myself re-reading an essay written a few years ago for Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book. “Love Song” tries to catch those summers like gossamer and keep them preserved in a kind of poetry. I read it and remember the summers and think of everything I didn’t know. The names of the bees, the bird making a last call beyond the garden (one note like a varied thrush but a little fuzzier, a little raspier), where the snakes have gone that it’s been weeks since I’ve seen one sunning itself under the Japanese maple.

The light is our clock. We talk quietly in bed, listening to the birds. In the night there were loons and we’re glad they’ve chosen the bay below us for nesting. One of us remembers a summer when the house was filled with children. Another remembers waking in the tent to face a day of house-building, framing and lifting walls, running out of nails, measuring and measuring again the bird’s mouth notches so that the rafters would rest snugly on the wall plates. One baby slept in a basket on the sleeping bag in the blue tent. (The others were still unborn, waiting to be dreamed into being.) One baby slept in a crib in the new wing of the house, in a room next to the one with bunk-beds, while I walked in the garden in a cotton nightdress, coaxing the peas to attach themselves to wire. Three children didn’t sleep as the sun set later and later, long past bedtime, and we made campfires in rings of stones, sat on a cedar plank while the smoke rose to the stars. In the garden, the sun-dial (Grow Old With Me, The Best is Yet to Come) was smothered by lemon balm.

There’s a moment when the bees come. I went out to the deck for my bathing suit at 8:15 and the oregano was moving slightly in a breeze but the only bee to be seen was a dead one on the the surface of the deck, lying on its back with its legs folded neatly. When we returned just after nine, the blossoms were dense with bees, a couple of dozen. Some of them seemed to be coming from a different nest because their trajectory was right over our heads as we sat at the table with our coffee. A big one, a queen perhaps, arrived and dominated one area of the oregano, her legs heavy with pollen. There are at least 3 species, maybe 4. Maybe more. Only one entered the orange nasturtium, backing out with her pollen baskets full.

I’ve gathered enough chairs for everyone to sit, taken the summer plates out of their box, painted with figs and dark grapes. The fig tree a seedling, the grapes sending out first tendrils. Wind-chimes are making music of the air

I’m thinking ahead now as well as backwards. In a few weeks the house will be full of children, grown ones and young ones. Even John and I are children, though our parents are dead. In the night when I can’t sleep, I try to dream myself to my childhood, the long days in the Ross Bay Cemetery running my fingers over the worn inscriptions or else watching for muskrats in the slough behind the house we lived in on Matsqui prairie. How can we contain it all?

“And the world is on its side” (Dylan)


There are days, weeks, when the world seems porous to me. Open. Everything enters everything else. I don’t know quite how to put it. This morning, sitting with coffee on the upper deck after our swim, I watched the bees in the Origanum majorana we have everywhere because I never cut off the flower heads once they’ve gone to seed. It’s growing up on the deck in several potted roses and the bees love it. There must have been a couple of dozen, working in what must be an orderly way though it looks anything but. I don’t know enough about bees. We have houses for mason bees– they’re around in May and early June– and I know that there are honeybees too. But the genus Bombus is one I’m going to have to pay more attention to. When I look at the charts, I recognize a few. Bombus vosnesenskii, yes, I think that’s one I see often. And the Black tailed bumble bee – Bombus melanopygus ​– is another I recognize. Anyway, I watched them and it was one of those moments when the work of the bees, the work of the herbs to attract them, my own work to keep plants alive and thriving, doing this in spite of the heat of this summer, all felt suffused with the other. While we were watching the bees, a skimmer alighted on a tall stick supporting a tomatillo. I wonder if that’s the same one that was here last week, asked John. Was it? Again, I don’t know enough. But it stayed in place, or at least it flew away once or twice but almost immediately returned, for at least an hour, poised in the morning sunlight.

Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world is on its side
And time is running backwards

If you were young in the 1960s and 1970s, you might recognize those lines as Bob Dylan’s. I heard “Ring Them Bells” play this afternoon and almost wept. I go through my days, living them as completely as I can, but so much is happening in the world (on its side) that I feel helpless to understand or comment on. I was awake in the night, working on a long essay about John’s autumn surgery and how that went sideways but also acquainted me — us — with a grammar and a set of instructions I hadn’t expected. He hadn’t expected them either. We learned things: about hospitals, about pain, about resiliency, about patience; and we learned them both alone and together. In many ways we are so lucky. We feel that daily, no question. We have space, enough money to live the life we do, we have a family we love, work we care about. It’s one thing to know this and another to wake in the dark, find my way down to my desk, open the file that takes me completely into those weeks, those months, of preparation, surgery, recovery, and to know again the fear and loneliness of unfamiliar rooms, of diagnoses, treatments, appointments, re-admissions to hospitals after one thing or another went wrong (sideways), more tests, disagreements between medical staff about severity of test results and how to proceed. It would be easier not to write this at all but having begun, I feel obliged to continue. Time runs backwards at night. In its flow I return to the waiting for information, for the walk from where I stayed to the hospital where everyone was masked, where we hoped we could cope with whatever we needed to go forward, and mostly we have, and where there was a great consolation of finches in the maples beyond the room where I sat with the quilts I was making while I waited for news.

The world feels porous. It feels unbearably vulnerable right now. Fires, assassinations, new strains of the Covid virus, the uncertainty of what the future will bring to all of us. I am awake most mornings around 6:30 and I come downstairs, open the doors to see if I can smell smoke. Our Douglas firs are shedding their needles at an alarming rate. They can tolerate drought but the heat is something else. While it’s still cool, I go outside and try to take a measure of the day. Late season birdsong, the last gasp really, sometimes rustling in the woods that could be deer or elk, a bit of breeze that brings more fir needles to the ground where John will rake them up later to keep tinder from the perimeter of our house.

I’m porous. The scent of fir needles, bees in the oregano, the single swallow skimming the lake as I swam this morning, a little frog climbing out the grass clippings on top of the compost when I opened the box yesterday morning — I take them in and in and in. I think I know deep down, at bedrock, that this is the electricity of being alive and I’m grateful for all of it. The young woman who reminds me I was once her stops me at times to say, Remember what you love, remember everything. That young woman loved Dylan too. She sang at the top of her voice whenever she imagined she was alone. This is her right now, singing.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

The glass of water

tree frog

When I was planning to go to Crete in the fall of 1976, someone asked me if I’d read Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. I hadn’t. I remember reading it the month before I left and loving every word. Would I love them all now? I might just read it again to find out. But today I thought of the passage about water, so rich and vivid and mythic somehow. I was watering on the deck upstairs, late, because we had to go down to Sechelt this morning on errands. It was overcast and cool when we left but blazing hot once we got home and so after a quick lunch I began to take hoses and watering cans around to the potted plants. Water dripped on my feet and I thought how welcome it was, cool drops on dry skin. I filled the blue dish I keep on a planter for frogs. And that was when I remembered The Colossus of Maroussi and wondered if it still held the same beauty. I found it on my shelves, Theresa Kishkan, August, 1976, the price tag–$2.00–still stuck to the cover.

I sauntered slowly through the park towards the Temple of Jupiter. There were little tables along the dusty paths set out in an absent-minded way; couples were sitting there quietly in the dark, talking in low voices, over glasses of water. The glass of water . . . everywhere I saw the glass of water. It became obsessional. I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life. Earth, air, fire, water. Right now water had become the cardinal element, Seeing lovers sitting there in the dark drinking water, sitting there in peace and quiet and talking in low tones, gave me a wonderful feeling about the Greek character. The dust, the heat, the poverty, the bareness, the containedness of the people, and the water everywhere in little tumblers standing between the quiet, peaceful couples, gave me the feeling that there was something holy about the place, something nourishing and sustaining.

When I fill the birdbath, often a robin comes almost immediately. When I take the hose around to the tomato plants in their deep pots, I can smell the water on their lower leaves. They must feel like I feel every morning at 8:30 when I step into the lake and push my body into the water shimmering with sunlight through cedars, tiny schools of fish darting here and there, kingfishers further along the shore diving for breakfast, and yes, there is something holy about the place, about the cool water quiet in the morning, a few footprints at the very edge, marks left by the crows who are waiting for us to leave.

“into the air”

abraham darby

Some mornings I sit at my desk and open A Writer’s Diary as a kind of divination. What was Virginia Woolf thinking nearly a hundred years ago, or eighty? How did her days progress? On a warm day when so many things presented themselves as necessary, which did she choose? Some writers feel like companions across the years. She’s been one of mine for half a century. I read The Waves and To the Lighthouse as a teenaged girl and I remember taking the books with me in the green canvas rucksack I bought at Capital Iron in Victoria, taking them with me to Island View Beach or out past Sooke to Sandcut Beach, where I’d read them on warm rocks, looking out to islands or wild surf.

One thing about social media is that you realize how many people are looking for writing methods and advice. They ask questions about how other writers work, what to do with finished poems, how to cope with rejections, hoping there might be an answer. Is there one? I used to ask those questions of others, I guess. But learned pretty quickly that the way I worked and my expectations of my own writing didn’t quite match anyone else’s. It took awhile for me to be comfortable with that knowledge. To be honest, sometimes I’m still not. I still wonder if my writing life might have been different, more successful, if I’d done things differently. But I have a history, my own history, and when I take the time to think about it, I feel that I’ve done work I needed to do, my way, and although I never think it’s quite enough, it’s something. It’s been helpful to live all these years with another writer who has a very different approach to his work than mine, who is encouraging, but not intrusive, and it’s also helpful that we live outside the centres of power and influence.

This morning, I opened A Writer’s Diary to July, 1926. Virginia is finishing To the Lighthouse. And (imagine this!) she goes to visit Thomas Hardy. He’d have been, what, 86.

“Did you write poems at the same time as your novels?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I wrote a great many poems. I used to send them about, but they were always returned,” he chuckled. “And in those days I believed in editors. Many were lost–all the fair copies were lost. But I found the notes and I wrote them from those. I was always finding them. I found one the other day; but I don’t think I shall find any more.

So on a morning when I go out to turn on the sprinkler in the vegetable garden, when I move the big tub of prunings from the roses I deadheaded yesterday, when I begin to think about the day ahead–a swim, some errands, possibly working on the scribbles I hope will become a novel, I am comforted by the thought of Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy talking, Mrs. Hardy unable to say much more than that the dog Wessex bites and that the Mayor of Casterbridge is being dramatised, and how Hardy shared some gossip, errr, social observation, about another writer:

“E.M. Forster takes a long time to produce anything–7 years,” he chuckled. All this made a great impression of the ease with which he did things. “I daresay Far From the Madding Crowd would have been a great deal better if I’d written it differently, he said. But as if it could not be helped and did not matter.

In a little while, I’ll change from my nightdress to my bathing suit and find my towel. It’s going to be hot. Yesterday I staked the eggplants in the greenhouse and put a pot of marjoram stems in the doorway to encourage bees. Some find their way into the greenhouse, particularly early, before the sun comes over the mountain with its intense summer heat. It will be a quiet week. They’re mostly quiet these days. Swims, errands, the daily work of a life. I’m about to close the morning divination but want to share this last little cameo of Mr. and Mrs. Hardy at home, with some social observation about Lawrence of Arabia, as remembered by Virginia Woolf.

“Do you think one can’t write poetry if one sees people?” I asked. “One might be able to–I don’t see why not. It’s a question of physical strength,” said Hardy. But clearly he preferred solitude himself. Always however he said something sensible and sincere, and thus made the obvious business of compliment-giving rather unpleasant. He seemed to be free of it all; very active minded; liking to describe people; not to talk in an abstract way; for example Col. Lawrence, bicycling with a broken arm “held like that” from Lincoln to Hardy, listened at the door to hear if there was anyone there. “I hope he won’t commit suicide,” said Mrs. Hardy pensively, still leaning over the teacups, gazing despondently. “He often says things like it, though he has never said quite that perhaps. But he has blue lines round his eyes. He calls himself Shaw in the army. No one is to know where he is. But it got into the papers.” “He promised me not to go into the air,” said Hardy. “My husband doesn’t like anything to do with the air,” said Mrs. Hardy.

of fires and rivers

the rivers

When I was a child, my family drove from Victoria to Edmonton most summers. In those years there was no Coquihalla Highway so you drove up the Fraser and Thompson Canyons to Cache Creek and then you drove east. I loved the drive up the canyons, loved watching for the first Ponderosa pines, usually around Boston Bar, and I loved the trains, the way they looped around the mountainsides, the haunting sound of their whistles. My dad always pointed things out. The sign for Walhachin (which haunted me in its own way for so long that I finally wrote a novel about it), the old hotel in Spences Bridge, the sign for Jackass Mountain. Sometimes we camped at Skihist. John and I took our children there when they were young too and we found remnants of the old wagon road, walked its ruts, imagined it in the years when men and mules followed it north to the gold fields. I wanted a way to commemorate these places as I knew them, and know them,  and so I wrote about them. At one point I even gathered long pine needles from Skihist and other places and made little baskets as a way to hold the memories of dry air and resiny trees somehow intact, shapely and sharp-scented.

And I loved Lytton — as a child (because sometimes we stopped there for ice-cream or popsicles) and as an adult, particularly once I’d read Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval and I could walk the village, wondering where Hetty might have lived. I imagined her here, in better days, but of course, as Melville observed, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.“

hetty's house

The sun dipped behind the hills across the river and the windows of the bungalow ceased blazing with evening sunlight. At once you felt the cool air as if it were the earth’s cool breath. Anybody looking out of the front windows of Mrs. Dorval’s bungalow could look down on to the racing Thompson River. Perhaps the water was emerald, perhaps it was sapphire. It is both. It is neither. It is a brilliant river, blue-green with lacings of white foam and spray as the water hurls itself violently along in rapids against hidden or projecting rocks, a rapid, racing, calling river.

If I have a favourite river, it might be the Thompson. It might be the Thompson between Spences Bridge and Lytton, a length I’ve rafted twice, once with John and Forrest, and again with Brendan and Cristen, the trips our gifts to them when they’d completed their PhDs. Tumbling over and through the rapids in a rubber raft is exciting but what I loved most was when the guide told us we could swim for a bit if we wanted to. If we wanted to. I will never forget swimming those blue-green waters, holding a rope for safety, as we passed flinty rocks, the air heady with artemesias. In my novella, The Weight of the Heart, I gave Isabel the experience (though our rafts never flipped).

Last night I was shocked to learn that Lytton was on fire. On fire. Just think about that for a moment. A small village on the edge of a river, two rivers, burning. I woke several times, thinking about the place and its residents, hoping that somehow the story would have a happy ending when morning came. But it didn’t. News reports say that 90% of Lytton has been destroyed. Residents were given 15 minutes notice and reception centres were set up in nearby communities.

Lytton has seen more than its share of devastating fires. In Thompson Valley Histories,  a collection of essays about communities along the Thompson River edited by Wayne Norton and Wilf Schmidt, published in 1994 by Plateau Press, Dorothy Dodge chronicles the history of post-colonial fires in Lytton. In 1931 a fire “claimed twenty-eight buildings, including garages, two stores, the hotel, cafes, barbershops, the Opera House, the butcher shop, a pool hall, a drugstore, two warehouses, the livery stables, barns and outbuildings.” The hospital was saved but patients were evacuated: “Annie Kent tells of herself and a woman from Lillooet, both with new-born babies, being whisked away to the doctor’s house on the hill, all four of them being plunked in a big double bed, there to stay until the threat was over.” There were several casualties though.

In 1949, another terrible fire destroyed most of the businesses. In 1970, a forest fire burned a subdivision and an Indigenous reserve on the south-east side of the town. Dorothy Dodge writes, “The fear of fire never completely goes away. The town has survived, despite the recurrent flames, and looks forward to a future uninterrupted by setbacks like the disastrous fires of 1931, 1949 and the early 1970s. Reminders of these and other fires still remain on the streets of Lytton and in the hearts of its residents.”

I keep checking for updates of last night’s fire. The images are horrifying. The main street before and after, bright light and green grass, then smoking ruins.

After our raft adventures, swirling out in the confluence of the two great rivers, we sat in the welcome shade of big trees by the Totem Motel, drinking beer, relaxed and light with pleasure, watching the trains heading north and south. In the haunting sound of their whistles was the memory of hearing them at Goldpan and Skihist, at the old hotel in Spences Bridge, in childhood and young motherhood and after, and now I will also remember those moments of deep joy in a place that should have been spared, but wasn’t.