posts

“On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree”

garry

When I was writing Mnemonic: A Book of Treesit was published in 2011 so this was perhaps 2009?—I had a conversation with a range ecologist on Vancouver Island with a particular interest in Garry oak habitat. He sent me a map showing the historical range of those iconic oaks on lower Vancouver Island as well as the contemporary range and the difference was startling. The ecosystem of these trees is a complex community of  plants, animals, and insects. Saving a tree alone doesn’t necessarily result in its survival. The ecologist recommended to me that I try growing some Garry oaks myself if I thought my land would be congenial for them because extending their range might also assist their survival. Maybe 5 years ago on a walk around Rithet’s Bog in Victoria, I collected 6 acorns and brought them home. I planted them in the fall and that spring I was delighted to see that one of them had sprouted. Now each spring I’m so happy to see my little tree grow a few inches taller and I love watching the new leaves unfurl.

My Garry oak is ready to plant out. I have in mind a mossy bluff to the south of our house—you can see it in the background of the photograph of the oak in its pot—with an arbutus, Douglas firs beyond, lots of wildflowers (though not camas; I think I’ll try introducing some of those if I can. I know they grow elsewhere on the Coast here and there are also chocolate lilies on one of the small islands in Ruby Lake near us), and snakes, northern alligator lizards, and many species of moss and lichens.

The thing is, I have three other small white oaks to plant too. (Well, one is planted but not in a good place.) They’re little trees I found growing on the side of the trail to Sakinaw Lake. They’re not native oaks. Someone on the lake has an oak, I know, because I’ve seen the leaves on the trail in fall, blown from one of the properties of people who are here only in summer. These tiny oaks were probably the result of acorns buried by squirrels or jays. The edge of the trail is thick with bramble, salal, and other rampant growers. I brought the seedlings home because I knew they’d be smothered in a season or two. I don’t know what species they are apart from the fact that I believe they’re white oaks—their lobes are rounded at the tips rather than pointed, as with red oaks—and their new growth is beautiful.

little oak

It’s late in my life to plant oak trees. I’m 65, John is 72, and we’re living in a world fraught with danger. I’d planned to gather a few more Garry oak acorns in the fall on Vancouver Island but will we be allowed to travel? Will I want to? Home feels so much less perilous than the world beyond our property line and although I go out one day a week to buy groceries, I find myself limited in what I do because I just want to get the shopping over with so I can go home.

But I have 4 grandchildren. And if you’ve been keeping track, I have 4 tiny oaks. Is it stretching credulity to say that I want these children to have an oak grove to sit within if the world survives what we’ve done to it. If we survive as a species. When I look out at the sweet mossy bluff green-gold with new growth and sunlight, I can dream them onto its soft slope, the oaks and the children, perhaps finding an acorn in the moss and thinking that it’s something they could plant. Like W.S. Merwin, I want to think of the trees surviving. (“On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree”) The children too. By then there might be drifts of blue camas and fawn lilies by the rocks, there might be a sky clearer than any we could imagine, and the deer stepping into the forest with her young ones, gods returned to us because we needed them.

leaving

 

 

 

…and yes, the river is moving as I write”

ready

Yesterday it rained. What better time to prepare fabric for indigo dye? I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks but there were enough nice days that I wanted to be outside as much as possible, working in the garden, planting tomatoes in pots on the upper deck. Getting fabric ready to be dyed is a long process. This time I’m not using any of the sewing resist methods. Mokume or woodgrain is one I’ve done in the past; you use a running stitch in parallel lines, or curving lines, and then gather the thread tightly. At least I don’t think I’m going to do this. I still have many yards of unbleached cotton waiting for me to decide what it might become. And today is rainy too.

Mostly what I did yesterday was wrap fabric around pvc pipe, using coarse hemp string to bind it. This results in the resist dye pattern arashi or storm. The last time I made a vat of indigo and spent a few days outside dipping and resting the prepared lengths, I think I loved the arashi cloth the most. See what happens with the areas bound by hemp string? I think of this as eel grass or rivers seen from a great height.

rivers

What I love best is taking the cloth into a 3rd dimension with stones or string or pvc pipe. I love to see it become a sculptural object. In the bottom of the basket on the left you can see a lumpy form created by pebbles fixed into place (with elastic bands) on a diagonal grid across 2/3s of the cloth (an old damask tablecloth, with stains, given me by a friend “to do something with”) and then the ends twisted and wrapped with string. What will it look like when dyed and unwrapped? I have no idea. Angels or birds or splashes of white.

stones

I realize as I do this that I am more interested in the process than the result. I wrap and think and wonder. I know enough to understand how amateur my work is with indigo dye. I have no illusions about its importance as art or even skillful craft. But to be immersed (literally) in a long process of preparing and standing with a stick to push cloth into dye, to turn plain cloth into something else, something more, is about as thrilling as anything for a woman to do on the edge of the continent while the world is crazy with virus and death and grief (and I am crazy with those things too). To walk through the days after with stained wrists, a basket of deep blue cloth scribbled with memory, waiting to be taken to its next life as a quilt or curtains or simply to be folded in a basket.

In her book Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada wrote about this process:

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

I won’t mix my vat today. I need a run of nice days. But yesterday’s work with the string and cloth and my reluctance to do the complicated mokume or even to fold cloth in  accordion pleats and clamp wood along the length to make itajime or window resists seemed to be the right thing to do. And when I woke in the night, I realized why. I am working on a long essay about my grandmother’s early life on the Red Deer River. She lived on the south side and then, later, the north. I am trying to figure out the details of each period, how and why she moved, and yes, the river is moving as I write, is the source for so much of her daily life. Water came from the river, brought up in tubs on a sleigh in winter and maybe a wagon in summer. A neighbour who washed her clothes in the river and drank the water died of typhoid fever on the dirt floor of her shack. And I have wrapped fabric—old damask tablecloths, rough cotton, some scraps of coarse linen—onto pipe to make rivers, the “‘memory’ of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth.” How to make the language of this essay do that too? To spread itself across the page, first one bank of the river, then the other, a bridge in the distance, the far hills. Language to carry the dimensions of her life, of mine, her time, mine.

sometimes…

herbs

…gathering ingredients together to make a dish is like assembling images, lines, phrases in order to make an essay or a poem. Signals, emblems. On a May afternoon, I cut a huge basin of kale, buckhorn plantain, a leafy perennial chicory I planted years ago for its spring leaves and later for its blue flowers the colour of the sky. I cut dandelion greens, spinach, rapini going to flower, a few leaves of blood-red sorrel. I cut a sheaf of chives, a bouquet of parsley, long strands of the mint that came from John’s English grandmother in his mother’s summer suitcase, dill as green as the spiny wood ferns on shady trails. A tub of feta cheese, 4 brown eggs, filo pastry as delicate as a child’s skin, and greeny-gold olive oil. An lyric essay, leaving the confines of its syllabic lines, the rhetorical device of repetition emphasizing the soil, sunlight, a quick rinse in cool water with a dash of salt to deter snails, a essay in bitter green. Hortopita, from χορτα, horta, a term meaning weeds, and πιτα, pita, meaning pastry*.

*Endnote: puffed and lovely, ready to eat.

hortopita

rumours

post card horni lomna

At my desk, in the night, I was thinking about rumours. In the Before time, I remember rumours. Someone heard a certain person was. Or had. Someone heard something and maybe it was true. Or not. In the night, I wondered about the origins of the word. From the late Middle English, it seems, and back, back, to Old French rumor, or “commotion”, and then to Latin: rumor, meaning “noise”. I haven’t heard much noise of this sort lately, not in my daily life.

I was awake in the night, working on a piece called “The River Door”. In a way I’m following rumours. Where exactly a certain shack dug into a bank of the Red Deer River was when my great-uncle lived there, and died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Somewhere I read that sick people were carried out of the shacks on doors but now it’s a rumour I can’t confirm. Does it matter? Maybe not. I’m not a historian after all. My great-uncle is also a rumour. He was not mentioned by people helping me to learn more about my grandmother’s family in Horni Lomna. They knew of two sisters. Not a brother. Yet he shows up on a ship’s manifest a few months after my grandmother travelled to Drumheller to join her first husband and his reason for coming to Canada? To join his sister in Drumheller. So a rumour on its way to becoming a fact? Can you be a fact if no one knows about you, remembers you? His grave is listed in the Drumheller Cemetery though there’s no marker. So that was one of the rumours I was following in the night as I listened to rain and something skittering in the eaves troughs.

This morning I opened A Writer’s Diary to May 25th, 1940, to see how Virginia Woolf was coping in East Sussex as the war raged around her.

Today’s rumour is the Nun in the bus who pays her fare with a man’s hand.

Imagine that making the rounds of the small village of Rodmell! Imagine it finding its way into the imagination of a woman sitting just to one side of the Nun as she (he) pays the fare. A small noise to begin with and maybe later a commotion.

“…the slow fires trailing”

peony 2

I’ve written about this poem before, I know, but I read it often, and today is a day when I need its wisdom. Maybe you need it too? Maybe you feel distant from those you love, the old fires abandoned, the horizon uncertain?

I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

My tribe is certainly scattered, the families I love, the far-flung friends, the recently discovered but distant (as in blood and geography) relatives. Yet I am surrounded by beauty. Just now, I went out to check that the little cucumber seedlings I planted yesterday are intact and yes, they are. I’ve been looking close to the ground these days, hunting the small slugs that are almost the colour of the earth, and so voracious they can eat a row of lettuces in a single night. But looking up, I saw the tree peonies in their full flowering, their colour so vivid on this grey day. Sometimes they open at the same time as the rose you can see in this photograph, a Tuscany Superb, a deeper shade of this incredible magenta.

peony 1

It was an accident, planting them so close together, but they manage their own form of relationship, one holding the other’s canes in its sturdier scaffolding.

I came into the garden, angry at the slugs, though of course they’re doing what is in their nature to do. A young snake slithered by the hoses as I walked with my head bent down. Sometimes I walk out at night to check for slugs. Sometimes it’s late and almost too dark to see and I find I’m listening for the bear with a quick racing of my heart. It would be better to leave things be. To pay attention and care for things, yes, but also to know when to step away and let the garden do what it does on its own.

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Stanley Kunitz, who wrote this poem, lived to be almost 101. He wrote a wonderful garden book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden. And do yourself a favour and listen to him read “The Layers“.

Before I came back to the house just now, I stood by the gate for a few minutes, looking out. The honeysuckle is a week or two from flowering. I saw the old bathtub planted with marsh marigolds, rushes, and a few flag irises. Some years the Pacific tree frogs lay eggs there but not this year, though I heard them singing, singing. I see the ring of stones where we make fires on early summer evenings when our children and their children are here. Beyond it, the long cedar bench where we sit, now strewn with a few plant pots. The layers are there if we want them to be, beyond the litter, the darkness, the damage done by slugs and reckless bears looking for trouble. We do what we can, keep places intact for the future, though how that future will present itself is anyone’s guess.

open

“…to save one hour to consider what has happened”

bear in April

You go along and you manage to stay purposeful, to do the things that keep your household more or less running and in order, you go out one day a week to buy food, you keep replanting the lettuce that the slugs feast on the moment your back is turned. The moment your back is turned, a black bear tears apart the compound where the garbage cans are stored. There’s nothing in them to attract a bear (kitchen garbage is recycled or composed or else kept in a shed until enough has accumulated for a trip to the landfill) but maybe it’s hopeful that your habits have changed. It returns. It tears apart the cans again, though they’re empty. There are days of joy, Joan Baez singing “Silver Dagger” and “Copper Kettle” as you sort laundry, long days of hard work, and other days when you read on your bed while the rain smatters on the blue roof. You manage.

And then there’s a day when you don’t. You can’t. In the night you sit at your desk reading something that breaks you open, written by someone you love. In the morning you can’t stop weeping. You know the world is changed forever and all along you’ve told yourself that this is an opportunity to revisit the way things are done. Employment standards, education, the way we treat our dear damaged planet. Each other. What did you think? That a weeded garlic bed would somehow act as a charm against the dark?

Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother
She’s sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger
She says that I can’t be your bride

There are days. And days and days. It’s been 63 days since things were even a little normal, though to be honest whole weeks go by that seem like last year’s. And the year before. But this is the week you can’t quite summon your best self. She is somewhere else, buried maybe, as the compost is buried in rich grass clippings. You thought you would simply write your essays, make your meals, talk to your children and your grandchildren. What now? It’s cool enough for a fire.

Build your fires of hickory
Hickory or ash or oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood
They’ll catch you by the smoke

The bear has just walked by your window. He’s not in a hurry, he knows the end is not in sight. The ash in your woodstove is cold, there are clouds over the mountain, and on your desk, as inspiration, A Writer’s Diary, in the elegant grey Persephone edition. For most of the weeks that made up the 63 days, you’ve been as cheerful as you could be. You made cotton masks. You washed your hands. You cancelled the things you had to. But these days are now the reckoning. Can you keep doing it? You can, of course. Do you want to? Some days you don’t. When you remember, you look to see what Virginia Woolf was thinking on a particular day as she wrote and thought and kept the darkness at bay. When she is writing The Waves, your favourite of her novels, she is immersed in its atmospheres, the 6 monologues, the voices as rhythmic as tides. She keeps the voices moving, even as she worries about structure, relevance. You remember Bernard thinking about Percival, the seventh presence in the book, the friend who is lost, dead. And Bernard’s words are what you would speak now, if it mattered.

I need silence, and to be alone and to go out, and to save one hour to consider what has happened to my world, what death has done to my world.

You have not yet saved your hour, though it is coming to that, isn’t it? What has happened, while the bear circles your house, and the sun is muted by cloud.

“…it becomes the story I am following.”

My new book, a novella, is due out later this month. The Weight of the Heart, published by Palimpsest Press, is at the printer as I write. This is always an exciting moment for a writer and even though this is my 14th title, I am looking forward to holding the actual book in my hand. In a pandemic, there’s not the usual opportunity to launch the book with an actual party, reading from it, meeting and hugging the well-wishers who always come out to help celebrate the book. I know people are doing this virtually and if there’s a chance to do that, I will too. But I am not a techie and can’t imagine zooming or however this is done.

So yes, it’s at the printer as I write. And here, at High Ground, where we have our own printing presses, it’s been a tradition to print a small keepsake to hand out at readings and to mail to far-flung friends who I know are there in spirit if not in person. John is out in our printshop now, putting the keepsake through the press a second time for the second colour, a beautiful blue.  I went out to see how it was going and found him locking up the text:

locking up

The press is already inked and ready to go.

inking
this is a 12×18 Chandler and Price Old Style, built in 1894

Here’s the proof:

proof!

This is something you could tuck into your copy, use as a bookmark, put by your desk. For those of you who buy a copy of The Weight of the Heart, I’ll happily mail you a keepsake, as long as I have them to share (their numbers are limited because of the nature of letterpress printing…). I urge you to support your local bookseller if possible. Ours, Bev Shaw of Talewind Books in Sechelt, will have copies, as will many book stores in Canada. You can order from the publisher too.

This is a book about rivers and canyons and dry Interior space in British Columbia. Its muses are Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. Its protagonist is young and troubled but she is also bold. She sees the landscape as a series of texts and she hears the voices of cranes, water systems, coyotes singing their hearts out. Here’s a passage as a virtual keepsake:

I have a section planned that will outline their expectations. Sheila’s on the train. Ethel’s in the car as she and Wallace drove to Lac Le Jeune for a week’s fishing. The bull pine imprinted on Ethel’s memory. The sound of ducks in the early morning. Sheila watches the river, the one she has known in New Westminster, its broad body of water surging towards its estuary. Through tunnels, along the narrow ridges, her head against the window, hearing the rhythm of the rail joints, the friction as the train followed the curve of the hills approaching Ashcroft, and the unknown. In the warmth of the car near Savona, Ethel is murmuring to her husband, wondering would they use a sedge pattern, a leech, in the weed patches fringing the lake they were heading to? He pats her knee, anticipating the days in the clinkerbuilt boat waiting for them, the drinks on the verandah of their cabin at dusk, the sound of cranes across the heavens. She doesn’t know she is thinking ahead, in her body, in the memory her muscles will hold of the rod, the line skittering on the calm water, until it becomes the story I am following.