I’ve been working on revisions of my essay collection, Blue Portugal, due out from the University of Alberta Press next year. It’s an interesting process, to revisit work and to see both its strengths and its weaknesses. I’m glad to have the opportunity to correct some of my careless constructions, to streamline some of my meandering thinking. But mostly? I’m grateful to spend time in the ecosystem of these essays again. They are accumulations of places, histories, explorations, and in them I find a more expansive version of myself. A woman standing in a gallery in the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, reading about geographical loneliness. Or in Ukraine, watching a woman wash a recently completed lizhnyk in the river tumbling below her house. Or in Fort Simpson, walking near the MacKenzie River while pick-up trucks circled, their drivers waiting for the ice to break up on the river.
I was surprised to find the pandemic in the pages of my essays too. Or not surprised, but I’d thought I was writing about the Spanish flu epidemic and I was, but there’s also a section about our newly-enforced state of isolation:
The first time someone knocked on our door since the pandemic began, I felt my heart race. I couldn’t move. You’ll have to go, I told my husband. He did, and it was a neighbour, bringing some of our mail that had ended up in his box. He put it on the post at the top of the stairs so that no one had to come out. Hearing his voice, I came to say hello through the screen door. He stood well back. After he left, I opened the door. For several weeks no one but us had stood on the other side, looking in; or on our deck, looking out at the world. My company had been my husband, and the dead who stood around me at night.
This morning is misty and there are still patches of snow on the ground. I have some masks to wash, some seeds to start, and in a little while we will head out for our swim. We’re lucky to be able to continue swimming because I know so many pools are closed. I do my laps in blue water by a window looking out at maples. While I swim, I think. I am thinking today about Portugal, how warm it was, how we went with an archaeologist in Evora to see some neolithic sites older (by 7000 years) than Stonehenge, observatories of careful attention. I remember lizards on the capstones of the passage graves and black pigs grazing under oaks as they had in the days of Odysseus. I remember the flat we rented in Lisbon, above a tiny square where a man and his wife ran a little bar with two tables on the cobbles and where we sat with a cool drink on the day of our arrival while almond trees bloomed against the wall. We’d traveled for a couple of hours to get there, crossing the Tagus River. Apart from our swims and one grocery shop a week, we are staying home. It could be worse. And luckily I have this work to do in which places I’ve loved are mine again to walk through.
I know a river Where the lights of the city are the unique stars laid over its waters —from a song by Fado singer Camané
Last night we were eating our Valentine dinner—little filet steaks, roasted asparagus, spinach salad—when I remembered something I’d read earlier that day, maybe in Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly, maybe somewhere online. What if there was a knock at the door and you found your children there, not as the adults they are, with their wide and busy lives, but as the children they were, available to you again for a couple of hours, an afternoon? What if. Maybe it was the candlelight, maybe the two glasses of excellent Côtes du Rhône (Gabriel Meffre’s Plan de Dieu), but I began to cry. It had snowed all day. The day before too. And it’s snowing as I write. Snowed in, on the edge of the world, and everything so far away. Most days I feel the privilege of my life. I have an excellent partner, we have wood in the woodshed, a durable roof over our heads, the pleasures of nice food and wine, our own work to do. So there’s nothing to cry about. But what I would have given last night to hear a knock at the door, to open it to see the faces of my children as they were 30 years ago, or longer, looking up in the porch light, wanting in. There was cake enough for all of us, the fire was warm, and what would we have said to one another as the snow swirled and settled on the boughs of the Douglas firs that have grown to great heights since we first looked out at them, a young family at our table.
When the jay appeared in the fir beyond the deck this morning, I realized it hadn’t been coming for breakfast for weeks, hadn’t been standing on the post to look in, wondering when the seeds would appear, and I realized I’d been wrapped in my own winter blues, too distracted to notice its absence.
I am not yet accustomed to a phone ringing (or playing “Brown-eyed Girl” because that’s the ringtone I set and I don’t know how to change it) as I sit in the car, waiting, so it took me a few minutes to realize how to see who I’d missed and how to return the video call, which was my grandson Henry, who is 4, wanting to talk about Jupiter and sharks and counting to a hundred, not a big number he insisted, and then confided that most kids skip the 30s but he doesn’t, and when his face disappeared from the tiny screen, I was waiting, waiting, under a blue sky, thinking about planets and how long it’s been since I saw my family.
Every day I sit by the fire with the pages of Blue Portugal*, scribbling and scoring out passages, moving others so that they make more sense, pausing in my reading to remember things I’d written about — driving to Lillooet on a cold November morning, seeing stars quite literally after retinal damage when I fell on ice 3 years ago, looking out a train window in the night as we travelled from Kyiv to Chernivtsi in search of my grandfather’s village and realizing that Orion was right over our train carriage, the same Orion who hung over our house thousands of miles away, walking along the Red Deer River and seeing a little creek enter it, not knowing that I was in the very place where my grandmother lived with her first husband a hundred years ago, in another lifetime that led to my own.
When I woke this morning at 5:30, it wasn’t Jupiter I saw but more likely Mars, and so many stars in a sky the colour of indigo velvet, while John slept, and the cat slept, his position an ampersand between us on these cold February mornings.
The blue hour, the one we wait for late February when the sun slips down below the horizon and the sky deepens to the saturated indigo of a Maxfield Parrish landscape, a platter of truite au bleu on the long table, a glass of Modry Portugal poured and waiting on the counter. An hour to be accompanied by the music of Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell. Stitch, stitch the dyed linen into rough quilts, spread the Indian cloth on the grass for the evening picnic, your hands blue with cold.
–from “The Blue Etymologies”, part of Blue Portugal
*Blue Portugal and Other Essays will be published by the University of Alberta Press as part of their Wayfarer Series in 2022.
My husband’s parents were married in February, 1946. One story my mother-in-law told concerned a gift, a large Mason ironstone bowl. As they travelled by train on their honeymoon, they were met at one stop by a cousin who presented them with the bowl. There was ambivalence expressed about this gift, a whiff of resentment about the cousin, who had done something to acquire an inheritance. Had been in the right place at the right time, had perhaps been a bit sneaky. The bowl was contrition. And maybe not quite perfect. A flower in the design was not filled with with colour. Everything about this story was vague, like the flower. What colour was it meant to be? Would anyone ever know? Was the bowl a “second” and perhaps not worth much?
Everyone involved in that story is long dead. But before she died, John’s mother gave him the bowl. He’d always liked it. And maybe she was still ambivalent about it more than half a century later.
Every now and then John and I make notes about things we have in our house, notes towards a document that will detail the stories associated with objects our children may one day want for their own. The Sheffield plate coffee pot, also a wedding gift to John’s parents, and very old (18th century, I think). The sterling flatware, just 4 place settings, collected by my mother before her own marriage, and never used by her and my father. Paintings, prints, pottery vessels, table linens, a crib quilt made by my grandmother out of scraps of what look like old housedresses and pajamas. A camphor chest brought back from southeast Asia by my father in the early 1960s as a gift for my mother; when she opened on board his ship, there was a bottle of My Sin inside. John wrote about the train platform and the gift of the bowl by the perhaps disreputable cousin of his mother. But now there’s more to the story and he’ll have to add new details.
In working on some family history, our older son discovered a hoard of information about an aunt of John’s mother, a suffragette and (as described in a newspaper article) “an excellent vegetarian cook”. In looking at her story, Forrest was able to piece together a series of sad and revealing events. A publican whose wife drank laudanum in what was described as “temporary insanity” and who had expressed concern with her alcohol consumption as well as her obsessive anxiety about hydrophobia as a result of being bitten by a cat, Their own daughter doing much the same thing (after losing her husband), drinking chlorodyne (a mixture of laudanum, cannabis, and chloroform), leaving her child, an orphan, to be raised by his suffragette aunt. Who named him as beneficiary when she died. And this was the man on the train platform, offering the gift of the bowl. Maybe not so underhanded after all? What he had done was to live in his grandfather’s house, with his aunt, after the deaths of his parents, in the shadow of his own grandmother’s death, and (it seems) to inherit the house and perhaps its contents from his aunt, who’d clearly loved him. Maybe the bowl had been a family treasure that he wanted to pass on to a cousin who had just married, to share something of the household, something of value. Because the bowl is certainly that. Doing some research, John and Forrest have discovered it is probably more than 150 years old, in good condition. Though if you study the photograph, you’ll see the flower in the middle, left blank. An online search shows other objects in this pattern and that flower is pink and blue. I’ve only learned that this morning. So there’s always more to a story and what you don’t know, you can fill in for yourself.
…just beyond our bedroom window. Every winter, reliable as clockwork, we hear them in the woods at the edge of our property. They den somewhere south of our house. Every now and then I see one amble by my window. Last winter we watched a pair down in the old orchard, one of them heading up the bank to where our cat was also watching them, from the deck. When it saw us, it disappeared into the bush.
On spring evenings we hear them, their families new, and in summers we hear them, singing in moonlight. In fall, we hear one, maybe. I imagine it’s the mother, wondering how the time has passed so quickly that the young have all left the den. One summer a pup came several mornings in a row, pausing to pull down salal branches so it could eat ripe berries with the most delicate care.
The ones last night? Where do they fit in the long sequence of generations? Are their songs specific to place? I wrote about them in the title essay of Euclid’s Orchard and I am writing the same things now.
One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad,
dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed, but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.
–from “Euclid’s Orchard”
When I was a teenager, I had a horse, a black Anglo-Arab gelding I bought as a two-year old from a breeder in Yarrow. My family lived then in Matsqui (my father was in the Navy and was stationed at the radar base there). We rented an old house on a farm and the farmers who owned it allowed me to keep my horse in a small orchard. When we moved back to Victoria after that year in Matsqui, my parents bought a house on half an acre in Royal Oak. My dad fenced part of it for the horse. It wasn’t really enough room for him and the neighbour across the road, Bill Mahon, said I could use one of his fields, also an orchard. His family had been Saanich pioneers and he said that the old house behind the one he lived in was the oldest house in Saanich.
I tried to confirm that a few years ago when I was writing Euclid’s Orchard but the archivist I wrote to insisted that the street hadn’t existed before the 1950s.(This is the newer house on the property, probably dating from the early years of the 20th c.)
It was useless to argue, though I tried, remembering that Bert Footner, the man who’d built the Colonial bungalows at Walhachin also lived on the street in a house he’d built for his wife and daughter Molly after they’d left Walhachin in (I think) the 1930s. Anyway, Bill Mahon said, Oh sure, use the field. So I did. I turned my horse out into a beautiful old orchard populated by a few steers. Horse and cattle ignored one another.
But then someone knocked on our door. It was a man who was so irate that my horse was in the field that he rented for his steers. It turned out he had a proper lease agreement for the land and that Bill Mahon hadn’t consulted him. And it was not ok with him to have my horse in with his cattle. The two species treat land differently and he felt my horse would dig up the soil with his hooves and ruin the grass. So I moved my horse back to the little paddock my father had fenced, though eventually I found a barn and large field on Glanford Avenue, so that story ended well.
The man who was so irate turned out to be a very nice guy. He farmed on Christmas Hill — I think he might have been Tom Pendray?– and rented the extra grazing for some of his animals. He told me about some areas on Christmas Hill where I could ride and I remember how beautiful the area was. Garry oaks, camas in late spring, the scent of wild onions underfoot as I cantered my horse along the ridge of the hill. In those years there were lots of wild spaces close to the city. The area above Rithets Bog was one of them. I rode there too and you could go all the way to Blenkinsop Road through golden grass and oaks. Occasionally someone would spot a cougar. Often pheasants. I dream of these areas still.
My daughter Angelica knows how much I love Garry oaks and she sent me a little box of acorns before Christmas. Some were from Christmas Hill, the part of it that’s now a nature sanctuary. I planted them and am happy to see them sprouting up in the sunroom.
Last year I meant to plant out the other Garry oak I grew from an acorn pocketed at Rithets Bog but somehow didn’t get to it. This summer I will. There’s a mossy area just to the south of my study and I think a little grove of oaks would be ideal there. A haunt of Pan, of the memory of riding through dry leaves, one hand on my horse’s damp neck, the oaks remembering an older soil, Christmas Hill and Rithets Bog and older, older, people gathering camas roots, bull rushes at Swan Lake, chocolate lily roots, fern rhizomes, crabapples and salmonberries.
There are days when I live in the moment, as most of us do, and there are days when everything I do is in service to memory, little scraps of it here and there until there’s enough of it to make a story.
Some days I feel like I’m living on the very edge of the earth, and in some ways I am. On the edge of the earth, there is a fire to make in the mornings, a cat to feed, a bird-feeder to fill with black sunflower seeds. There’s a book to revise, meals to make, laundry piled up at the top of the stairs. At the edge of the earth, no one comes to the door.
We go down the Coast usually one day a week to do our grocery shopping, other errands, and I take back the previous week’s library books, check out some for the week ahead. On the New Books shelf yesterday, I was surprised to find a copy of a memoir by John Luther Adams–Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know how much I love his music. Of course I brought the book home and I began to read it last night. I wondered how he’d felt compelled to write the book and there it is, in the Acknowledgements:
On a winter evening walk across frozen Lake Louise in the Alaska Range, the writer and critic Alex Ross asked me whether I’d ever considered writing a memoir. I hadn’t.
“You’ve lived an interesting life,” Alex said, quietly.
Alex Ross is one my favourite music writers. I found his wonderful The Rest is Noise on a trip to Europe in 2009 and it was the best of companions as we traveled on trains and walked to concerts in the evenings. His next book, Listen to This, led me to the music of John Luther Adams and I am grateful for the introduction. So many times I’ve sat at my desk, working on something, while Become Ocean resounds through my small room. (Like right now.) So I was intrigued to read about how he came to composition and how he listens to birdsong, ice, weather, bells, and explores how to bring them together in ways that take the listener to the locations of their origins. In an interview about his memoir in The Nation, Adams says this:
The construction of the music, the intellectual care, the mathematical rigor, the algorithmic detail—all that is essential, even if you don’t hear it or you choose not to listen to it. I’m not interested in showing you how much technique I have, how smart I am. The music is not about me, or even about my making it.
But I still think that if it’s well made, and if it has a formal coherence, like this mountain does or like the seasons do, it gives the music that elemental quality that I’m after. There are moments in Become Ocean or Become Desert when all these different tempos and sonic layers begin to converge, or diverge for that matter, and I believe when a listener hears that, even if she doesn’t hear it consciously, it creates a gravitational pull or a magnetic field in the music.
I read far longer into the night than I normally would and this morning I reached for the book first thing, with my coffee. In the fifth section, there’s a beautiful profile of Adams’ relationship with the late American poet, John Haines, in so many ways his kindred spirit. Mine, too. If you look at the photograph at the top of this post, you’ll see The Stars, The Snow, The Fire, a book I’ve treasured for decades. I keep it behind my computer so that I can easily reach for it and be taken away, to Alaska, in language so full of music, that it comes as no surprise to learn that John Luther Adams set a suite of John Haines’ poems to music, Forest Without Leaves:
A birch leaf held fast in limestone ten million years still quietly burns, though claimed by the darkness. Let earth be this windfall swept to a handful of seeds— one tree, one leaf, gives us plenty of light.
There’s music at the edge of the earth, sounding out as waves of ocean, as the anticipated song of the Swainson’s thrush which even a pandemic can’t take from me, as a croaky bell in the woods as ravens tumble and play, a ping on the roof as the rain begins. The sonic layers of a life, plenty of light.
Note: this is from January, 2017. Last night I dreamed of a dear friend, David Watmough, who died in August of that year. I dreamed he was still alive, though very frail, and that I’d forgotten to visit him. When I did go into Vancouver to see him (in the dream), he was almost transparent. This morning I was reminded that sometimes we live at once in the world, and beyond it; and I longed, oh I longed, for the presence of those ghosts.
Since the beginning of January, I’ve been swimming three times a week, sometimes four. There’s a pool and gym at the local high school and for years my children took lessons there. We’d go sometimes on winter weekends, especially when the power was out for a few days, as was more common in those years. (There’s a new kind of wire now running along the Hydro poles and we don’t have those long outages any longer, though we still have a few days here and there when the power goes out and we resort to lamps, a Coleman stove).
But the pool. I don’t much like chlorine and I don’t exactly like the notion of swimming back and forth without much purpose. Whatever it was that happened to me after my bout of pneumonia in late August had some unexpected side effects. One was pain in my right knee. Sometimes it was too severe for me to go for the long walks we like to take most days. It didn’t occur to me until quite late in the fall that swimming might alleviate the pain or at least allow me movement. And then it was Christmas so I didn’t bother looking for my bathing suit and figuring out the pool schedule, though by then John had begun to swim a couple of mornings a week. Home he’d come with news of the world — or least news of the world of Pender Harbour retirees.
So I began to join him in early January. There’s something that happens a few laps in. My mind clears, I find my way in my breathing and in the water itself (because water can resist you if you don’t find where you should be in it), and some deep thinking begins.
I’ve been thinking about what happened to me in the fall, why I felt, with the uncertainty of my health situation, that I was between worlds. At night the sky shimmered with stars and I wanted to be among them. My dreams changed. I saw things in my daily life, just out of the corner of my eye. People I knew long ago. People who’ve died. It was comforting in a way. Whatever happened, there would be company. I saw my mother in dreams a few times. I thought of Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, “the realm and region of the Men of Winter”, and how he found his mother. She told him she died not of any true illness but of loneliness for him. And reading Book Eleven just now, A Gathering of Shades, I remember all over again why I love Robert Fitzgerald’s work with this great poem: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” If they are lonely for us, so are we, for them.
I am grateful that the worst hasn’t happened (or been diagnosed). I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry on with my life, which I’ve always loved. But I think I’ve learned things about what waits for me. I had such clarity in the fall. I hope I don’t lose that. I knew what I wanted to do with my time on earth. I knew what was important. I wrote and sewed and planted a hundred tulips. I fed the birds with such tenderness, because what if it was my last fall?
In 2013, in mid-winter, we had to have our septic field rebuilt. Because we’d made our big vegetable garden over the field, we had to dig out everything we could — raspberry canes, gooseberry bushes, roses growing there because the fence protected them from deer and elk, an apple tree, huge perennial herbs, bulbs of every sort. We dug things up and put them into temporary pots and then the man who was doing the rebuilding, a gardener himself, lifted the soil into big heaps outside the garden area with his backhoe. He scraped up every last teaspoon of rich earth. And after he’d made the new drainfield, we worked out where we’d put new beds, all to be framed with recycled cedar boards from old decks and various projects, the paths over the drainlines so if there was trouble, we’d know exactly where to find it. Then Doug scooped the soil back with the bucket of his backhoe, smoothing it into long barrows in the areas between the lines. It took some weeks to build those boxes, to replant what was waiting, and to try to establish the garden again. One day, easily a month after we’d replanted everything we’d taken out, I dug a hole for a new rose. And here’s what my shovel brought up from under the earth:
There’s an amazing scene in Book Eleven of the Odyssey when Odysseus meets his old comrade Akhilleus.
Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over all the exhausted dead.
Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t change my life on earth for anything. Not yet. But I have some sense of entering the great system of rivers surrounding the underworld: the Acheron (river of woe), the Cocytus (river of lamentation), the Phlegethon (river of fire), the Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods took vows), and the Lethe (river of forgetfulness). I’ve always loved rivers. And having dreamed of my mother and others I’ve loved and lost, I understand what Odysseus meant when he said, “But my heart longed, after this, to see the dead elsewhere.”
This morning I’m at my desk, with my book Euclid’s Orchard, trying to figure out some things about citations for a new collection of essays, Blue Portugal. It’s been accepted by a publisher and we are finalizing some language in the contract. One area has to do with the style I will use for my citations. This whole area makes me uncomfortable because I’m not a scholar and the idea of using a rigorous scholarly apparatus for what are essentially personal meditations and ramblings seems sort of dishonest, as though I am dressing my work up in clothing it doesn’t deserve. Luckily I have a very congenial person helping me with this. She says we will try for a light touch and that sounds promising. I think of some of these essays as conversations. They engage other writers, musical scores, human and plant communities, some science, history; but they love the conversations themselves, not the outcomes; they like the voices, listening, responding, and they are grateful to be part of a large and generous world. Weighing down the book with complicated notes was never my intention. I remember having to include endnotes in my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees and hyperventilating most of the time I was working on those notes. I kept wishing I’d paid more attention to stylesheets in my university days, though to be honest they were different creatures in those days. They’ve evolved. I haven’t. Or at least I’ve traveled in a different direction but I still need to leave a guide to how I got there.
Looking into Euclid’s Orchard yesterday and this morning reminds me of the times before this pandemic. I was out in the world more. My friends and family are in these pages. They are also in my new book because most of it was written before last winter. One long essay, though, was begun just as rumours of a virus were circulating and in the way that these things happen, part of it was about an early pandemic: the Spanish flu. This sounds a little too convenient, doesn’t it? Writer explores her family’s experiences in the Spanish flu epidemic in a small Alberta town. But it’s true. I was led into the work by a a voice speaking as I was climbing out of sleep too early one morning last winter. What was it saying? A phrase: the river door. I wrote it down on a scrap of paper, went back to sleep, and when I got up for the day, I was filled with the sense of excitement I recognized as the beginning of an essay.
That essay is set outside, I am outside in it, on both sides of the Red Deer River, trying to find a homestead that no longer exists, though I knew it had once, because I had a couple of photographs and I remembered a few comments made by my late father about his childhood. It’s set outside and it takes place in company; my husband is with me as I cross the river, cross Michichi Creek, and one of my sons and his family are with me as I try to think my way through some puzzles. The puzzles were partly solved. There’s a map that a helpful librarian found and sent to me.
When I look into Euclid’s Orchard, I am outside again, planning an orchard 40 years ago, raising children, learning to make quilts based on our house, the stars, a blue window in the room where one son slept. I hear the coyotes. I argue with my father about stuff. I take plants to Ottawa (on a plane! Imagine flying!) and I bring seedlings home.
We often talk about how lucky we are during these difficult times. We have a house to live in, we have acres of land, enough money to buy food, each other to talk to. We’ve had some challenges—a surgery gone sideways, resulting in damage we are still learning to cope with; loneliness; the sense that the world we love is not quite recognizable. But maybe better days are ahead. I hope they are, for all of us. And I hope my new book will wear its small learning as lightly as it can, its conversations temperate and civilized, its discoveries as interesting to others as it they were for me.