“Petals beaten wide by rain”

•May 22, 2019 • 4 Comments

dog rose

When I went out this morning, full of the sense of being home after five days in Ottawa, I was hoping I’d see a sign of the coyote who was singing and barking just beyond the house at 5:15 (I was at my desk for an hour of musing before going back to bed). No coyote and only the loons calling down on Sakinaw Lake. But the dog rose is in bloom around my bedroom window! I didn’t plant a dog rose here (though I have two others, found up the mountain, and as they’re not native to our area, there’s a story there that I’ll probably never know…) but an Alba rose, grafted onto R. canina rootstock (I’m guessing), eventually died and I let the rootstock climb and climb until it reached the second storey. It is very beautiful, with its shell pink flowers that the bees love and its long elegant hips come fall. Last week, two weasels raced along its length while I was reading in bed just before dusk. The Irish poet John Montague (who once taught for a semester at my university when I was 19) wrote of stories and dog roses and when I read this poem, it’s his soft voice I hear in my head:

And still
the dog rose shines in the hedge.
Petals beaten wide by rain, it
sways slightly, at the tip of a
slender, tangled, arching branch…

This rose blooms once and mostly those are not the roses I love, though I have thickets of moss roses given to me years ago by an elderly woman, Vi Tyner,  who came to our community in 1946, in a 12 foot boat, with her husband (his legs in braces because of polio), pulling all their worldly possessions in a canoe. It took them 4 days to make the journey from New Westminster to Pender Harbour. You might imagine why I cherish her roses, even though they bloom once, in June. She gave me a pale pink one and one that is deep pink, ruffled and so sweetly scented I wish I could bottle it.

In Ottawa, we helped Manon and Forrest in their garden. I dug over a bed and my grandson Arthur collected worms turned up by my fork to tuck into the potatoes in another bed. Forrest planted a rose, one of the Explorer series, hardy enough to survive their cold winters. Theirs is “Henry Kelsey”, a rose with its own history, and it will climb the fence around their garden, where two little boys play and raccoons try to claw their way through reemay cloth to eat the kale seedlings. And John and Forrest planted a pear tree too, to join the two apple trees planted last year, one of them a Melba, in memory of our lost orchard. Gardens and roses and stories fill these late spring mornings as I sit at my desk, waiting for it to warm up enough to head outside to stake poppies and Mrs. Tyner’s roses.




redux: “tree frogs/are ignoring their ladders”

•May 22, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Note, 4 years later: another dry May. I’m sitting at my desk, sleepless (because I’ve just returned from Ottawa and my body’s clock has yet to find its coastal sequence), looking out at stars and the waning flower moon. A quick walk around the garden when we got home late yesterday afternoon revealed an almost scary jungle out there, roses and poppies blooming, and evidence of a bear’s visit.


We’re promised a hot dry summer here on the west coast of British Columbia and I believe it. Almost no rain for the whole month of May, plants three weeks ahead of themselves, the tomato vines laden with blossom. I think of W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic poem, “Barometer Reading”, with its beautiful opening lines:

Nothing can be inferred

from the forecasts

Tree frogs

are ignoring their ladders…

Here’s yesterday’s tree frog, climbing the railings to settle among the honeysuckle:

P1120003And a further prediction of the hot summer to come — an abundance of the northern alligator lizards, basking on rocks, scuttling from woodshed to cool border, and even mating on top of the old kindling pile (it lasted hours!):

more than friends

Morning postcard from Vanier

•May 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

(walking over to Bobby ‘ s Table)

“So we plant for the future and for the past…”

•May 13, 2019 • 7 Comments

pink perfection

This is one of the first things we planted when we built the west-facing deck: a montana clematis. In my memory (not always reliable), it was blooming on Forrest’s 3rd birthday; friends came up for the day from Vancouver and we celebrated in spring sunlight on the new deck. It’s very rampant and has covered an entire section of railing and climbed up to join a grapevine and a wisteria on the trellis over the table we use all summer.


Last September, after we’d picked the grapes, I heard a commotion on the deck and looked out to see a young black bear climbing into these vines. When I shouted at it, the bear dropped down to the herb trolley below and ran off, but only momentarily. All month it hung around, eating crabapples, ambling around the place like a family dog. (Except it wasn’t.)

When I looked at the clematis just now, I remembered so much. That birthday party, with chocolate cake and the helium balloons our friends brought for the boys, one of which escaped on the ferry across Jervis Inlet a day or two later and probably still circles the earth. (The balloon, not the boy.) The Pacific willow that grew in front of the deck and how the clematis sent tendrils into it, embracing it and eventually smothering it to death. When it fell, the clematis fell too and died but luckily came back from the roots. And when we moved the willow off the bank the fall after it died? We saw that there were old bird nests tucked into the dense shelter created by its branches and the thicket of clematis vine. We couldn’t see them while the tree was living.

When the deck was rebuilt a few years ago, John realized he could use the existing beams and joists but he could extend the surface by cantilevering. The vines were all carefully untangled from their places and laid back on tripods to wait for construction to finish and then they were ceremoniously replaced. The clematis sulked but eventually accepted its new supports.

I remembered the rose we bought at the same time as the clematis, now long gone. And so many dinners on the deck, so many years of parties and conversations (one just last night!) and weeks of watering in the heat of summer. So many raccoons in fall, a bear, generations of hummingbirds, western tanagers, Steller’s jays, warblers.

When I planted the clematis, I wasn’t thinking about the future. The boards of the deck were raw and new. I had two sons, one turning 3 and one a year old. The days were filled with caring for them and helping John with building projects. We don’t plant for the immediate moment but for the future, whether that might be two months or twenty years away. Or thirty-five. While I was taking the photographs of the clematis, I stubbed my toe on something and I looked down to see the Garry oak I am growing from an acorn gathered at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria 5 or 6 years ago. It took nearly a year for the acorn to germinate and each year it’s put on a single set of new leaves. I’ve repotted it once and next year I’ll look for a likely place to put it in the ground.

small oak

This little tree is a sort of double mnemonic. When I look at it, I remember walking the trail around the bog with my husband and daughter, something we often do when we visit Victoria. But I also remember the area before it was a park managed by the Rithet’s Bog Conservation Society, when it was farmland still, before the Broadmead subdivision, before the shopping centre and the churches.

In the late 1960s, I used to saddle my horse early on weekend mornings and ride him across the Pat Bay Highway to a gate leading up onto the old Rithet’s farmland. I was in my early teens, a lonely girl in search of lonely places. Someone had told me that it was fine to ride there, but that the gate had to be kept closed, as there were cattle grazing in the area. I don’t really remember the cattle, but I occasionally saw deer in the tall grass. There were many oaks growing on the slopes. In the spring, there were expanses of blue camas, yellow buttercups, and odd speckled flowers that I now know were chocolate lilies.

I loved the open beauty of those meadows, where pheasants roamed and flew up, sharp-winged as we approached. The meadows smelled intensely dry, fragrant as hay, though not dusty. I’d let my horse canter up the long slopes and loved the way sunlight filtered through the trees.

–from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (2011)

So we plant for the future and for the past and for the moment that contains both of these. I will probably never see this tiny oak grow into the fullness of time but it’s not why I planted it. Rubbing one of its new leaves between my fingers, I am riding through that gate into Broadmead meadows, my black horse’s neck already damp with sweat.


a morning poppy, in memory of my mother

•May 12, 2019 • Leave a Comment

morning poppy

So now I have tokens, left in the event she should return to claim me, in all my imperfections—a child who burned recipes, who resisted sitting on her bed to share details of her life, a life I thought she’d disapprove of, but maybe I would have been surprised.Was I the fairest object of her love all those years when I felt myself homely, lonely, my face too dark, my legs too thick? Did her longing eyes seek me? Was my own birth wondrous to her. I doubt it. She was alone with two young sons, my father at sea, as he would be for so much of my childhood. I’ve searched for her mother, who never returned, who never claimed her in word or deed, but maybe I should have concentrated more on her. Her true heart, her own plain virtue.

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat,a memory of Mrs. Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea, with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

–from “Tokens”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

redux: “the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door”

•May 9, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Note: This post from May 2015 referred to the writing of an essay “Euclid’s Orchard” — it came the title essay for Euclid’s Orchard, published in 2017. But here I am in May 2019 working on another collection of essays, pondering the same either/ors. And agreeing with Rebecca Solnit in so many ways, particularly this: “Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.”


A year or so ago I began to write something, an essay (I thought), and there were so many things I wanted to include as the pages unfolded before me the way they do, so beguiling in their emptiness, their hopefulness. And after writing about ten pages, I had to put the piece aside. There was so much I knew I wanted to write about but I had trouble finding the language, the open heart (for there was pain in the writing, and damage, and I hoped reconciliation). There was another part to the work which involved a quilt and that too progressed to a certain point and then faltered, stopped. My pleasure in it went quiet.

out the window

But while we were in Europe, I found myself thinking about the work again, not in a new way exactly, but with a new enthusiasm for how I might explore its ideas, its large and mysterious terrain. Part of the problem I’d had was in the fatal habit of comparing what I had done in the past with the work of others. My writing never quite fits the current conversation. I’ve watched and listened as other writers discuss the boundaries and requirements and expectations of something that is being termed “creative non-fiction”. It’s not a term I like. Describing something as what it’s not — not fiction — doesn’t interest me. I don’t find it useful. What if you need to use fiction in a piece of writing which is mostly reportage, mostly investigation? Is it less true? I agree that there are pretty clear requirements about accuracy and verifiable information for journalism but do we need to apply those requirements to other kinds of writing that is (mostly) non-fiction? And creative? Please. As though that is something we can claim for one form and not others? (I’m reminded of those courses in the community education flyers that arrive twice a year: Creative Cake Decorating, Creative Home Decorating.) Anyway, I’m 60 and I’m kind of cranky about a lot of things these days. Politics, our inability as a culture to really deal with the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and how so many are willing to give up citizenship to become consumers.

Anyway, I’ve been working hard on this whatever-it-is. An essay which might just become a book. And I’ve comforted by my recent reading, particularly Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. What a glorious book. I rationed it over the past week because I didn’t want it to end. Because there’s a health crisis in the book, I wanted to be reassured that she became healthy again. (She does.) But where the health issue leads her is so rich and light-filled — and water-filled, too, because she goes to Iceland for a residency at the Library of Water — that the reader realizes the book is a quest in the tradition of the best ones. There is sorrow and loss but also a transcendent trip on a raft down through the Grand Canyon. “The river changed but never ceased, and this temporary life where I was always near that unbroken continuity was an experience of a particular kind of coherence.” And this: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end….What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” Yes, yes, what if? What if we wrote a book the way we wanted to, what if we never worried about its coherence, the narrative arc, the hobgoblin fact checker hovering over our shoulder as we worked? It’s worth a try. It’s worth more than that. It’s worth our best effort.

I read an interview with Rebecca Solnit in the Believer Magazine and she is both canny and congenial in how she describes her writing process. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labelled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.

I wake up every morning eager to get to work. This is such a joy to me — the prospect of the page, the scraps of paper on my desk where I’ve noted a line, an image (some of them photographs because there’s a particular plant I’m keeping an eye on), a possible equation (because there’s something resembling mathematics in this work), the elements whirling in my heart, my pulse, even my imagination (for some of this is fabricated).

“Do you see in the null shine how we’re leaving /everything behind?”

•May 7, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Lately I have been thinking about bridges and gates. Both of them are practical things and both of them are means of transporting us from one thing to another. From one side of a river to another, from one realm to another; both are openings in a way, if we allow them to be. Well, a gate or a door is obviously this but a bridge also has the ability to open us to a landscape, a far shore, without the potential danger of crossing a river by swimming or on horseback or by small boat (“The water is wide, I cannot swim o’er…“). My mother used to say, Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, and I’d ponder this in a way I never pondered the verses we had to memorize in Sunday school.

Many years ago, John and I happened upon a Paul Feiler exhibit at the Tate St. Ives. I was unfamiliar with his work but loved it, particularly the Janicon paintings. Feiler had trouble with his sight at the point in his life when he painted these serene works named for the god Janus who looked forward and backwards at once. John loved them too and wrote a poem exploring his reaction. The poem walks us through rooms filled with the shields and portals of the Janicon paintings. And then it tries to grapple with what they mean.

Is there something, I scribbled down

parallel to do in language?
The catalogue quotes Whitman: Darest though now

Oh soul/Walk out with me toward the unknown region…
The catalogue quotes Pound: In the gloom the gold

Gathers the light about it. I sit down
with my mother months later in her garden pergola.

I sit down with my mother outside in her last
moments at home, in her last moments before

the Home, the crazy talk a moment suspended.
A bird passes. I tell her many times after on the phone

how her wisteria has grown to command our patio…
the lattice filling, portals closing, shade. There is nothing

parallel to do in language. Do you see?
Do you see in the null shine how we’re leaving

everything behind? I refer you to the catalogue.

— from “Janicon”, published in crawlspace, winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (if you click on the link, you can see the cover of the book; it features Janicon LXXXIX)

I was looking out a few minutes ago towards my garden and saw its gate:


And now at my desk, I can see another portal:

iron portal

This morning an orange-crowed warbler perched in this particular opening, singing. I was at a loss to express how I felt at the song coming in my window as the bird sang in the old burnished iron. The song so simple in the morning light, the tendrils of wisteria, brought by John’s mother so many years ago (and from her mother, before that, tucked into plastic bags for the long flight from London to Vancouver). So much has been left behind but so much has gathered too in the areas around gates, iron grates, bridges over rivers dark with mud and the sound of magpies. Do you see? I wanted to ask but by the time I rose from my chair to call John, the warbler had flown.