“The light and dark of a secret map…”

•July 25, 2016 • 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, at the Friends of the Sechelt Library book sale, I found a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence. It is exactly the right book for the weather we’ve had this summer (after 13 weeks without rain last summer, I said I’d never complain about rain again; so this is me, not complaining about rain…). I love her books anyway and this was one I hadn’t read. So it went onto my bedside table and once I’d finished Belinda McKeon’s extraordinary novel, Tender, I began to dream my way back to Aix-en-Provence.

We spent four nights there a few years ago. We’d been in Paris and were meandering to Venice, where we planned to spend a week and ended up asking the host of the small hotel we’d fallen in love with if we could book another week  — we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving, not once we’d found our favourite grey canals and a little bar where a glass of Prosecco cost a euro and if you asked for another, the bartender simply brought a hose to your glass because of of course the Prosecco was on tap.

Stepping off the train in Aix was like walking into a Cezanne painting. The light, the pines, the view of Mont-Sainte-Victoire…Even the smell, if that doesn’t sound too weird. Old tile and water, plane trees and their leaves underfoot — it was November. It was a bit of a walk to our hotel and John was hungry. So he insisted on stopping at a corner store, a 8 à Huit, and coming out with a huge sausage and a bottle of red wine. He was gleeful at how little he’d paid, pleased that in France one could go to the equivalent of a 7-11 and buy something decent. (I didn’t say a word. The sausage looked suspiciously fatty and industrial.) And once we found our hotel, with its bright yellow curtains and blue shutters, he sat on the bed and opened the wine. How did he slice the sausage? I don’t remember but this was post-9/11 so I’m sure he didn’t have his Swiss Army knife. No matter. The sausage was terrible. The wine was pretty rough. But we found one of the gorgeous markets later that day and bought beautiful bread, cheese, olives, and other provisions for picnics. And we found an amazing park nearby, with a small museum in the former home of the great French poet Frédéric Mistral who was also a lexicographer of the Occitan language. There were wonderful pines there and benches to sit in the sunlight–« Les arbres aux racines profondes sont ceux qui montent haut. » ;“Trees with deep roots grow tall.” — and for one of us at least, the chance to gnaw at a little more of the 8 à Huit sausage.

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And M.F.K. Fisher’s book is drenched in that sunlight, the sound of water, the narrow streets between ancient buildings.

   It is the same about the whole sound of the place. Jean Cocteau has said that a blind man in Aix would think the city wept; but that is not my hearing of it. Instead, the music of the fountains lies under and in a mysterious way over every other, with a melodious gracious mirthfulness…on my own map, that is. And then I hear, always, the street sweeper of the Rue Cardinale, who in the dark of the night turned on the water from the little fountain of St. Jean de Malte and let it flood down the gutters, and then swept them with a broom made of long twigs which scratched forever into the unconscious listener in me. In full moon and dark, in the silent street, this sound became familiar, always almost frightening, always a strange reassurance of order and courage in the face of complete silent loneliness.

The light and dark of a secret map would of course be the most impossible to print. Even more than there is no ink for the smell of the Saturday Market or the sound of a broom in the dark gutter, there is none for some of the colours I shall always see clearly in my own cartography.

I remember Aix and on my own map, there are two travellers on a bench under pines, there are two lovers walking to the Cours Mirabeau to find a cafe for dinner, the fountains and their music part of the map’s legend, there is a golden light and churches, the prospect of Venice, and the creak of blue shutters in the wind that gave the poet his name.

 

 

 

 

 

hidden, and then visible

•July 23, 2016 • 2 Comments

In May, I was lying in bed one morning when I saw a face in the window, peering in from the strands of trumpet vine that run along the side of the house. What I saw and what I understood about an empty robins’ nest  was discussed in this post.

the culprit (1)

Most nights I read in bed and almost every night I hear something in the roof by the bathroom. We live in a wild area and so we’re accustomed to creatures — well, mice —  finding their way into the walls sometimes. In the past we’ve had cats but not now. (And given the abundance of coyotes in our area, I don’t know how long a cat would last.) But this never sounds like mice. They skitter and you can hear them gnawing. This sound is something else — a sound resonating in metal. (We have a metal roof; it replaces the original roof of cedar shakes.) John is always kind of skeptical. I know he believes I hear something but he is usually downstairs when I’m reading and so he hasn’t heard those feet racing through metal.

Hadn’t. Until this morning. He was in the bathroom and there it was. Something in the roof, or at least that’s how it sounded. He went outside and looked around. Nothing. As he was coming in the sunroom door, he looked up. And peering out of the little metal tunnel — where the lower roof of sunroom meets the side of the house — there was a face. A weasel. It came out, then backed in. He called to me and I came upstairs. How beautiful, the face of a tiny weasel looking at us through trumpet vine. The weasel I saw in May was probably a mother with a burrow of young somewhere near  — I saw her in the woodshed so I suspect she had her brood among the firewood — and about this time in the life cycle, she and a male (not necessarily the father of her young) will be teaching the family to hunt. So this could be a young one or an adult. By now the babies are full sized, though the males aren’t yet sexually mature. (The female young have probably already been impregnated by the hunting male.) We didn’t have a camera at hand but I went out later to see if the animal was still there. No. But you can imagine it just below that orange trumpet flower, its bright eyes and tawny body emerging, then backing in again, though not completely. We spoke to it. It sniffed the air. Us.

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This kind of tunnel — there must be a name for it but it’s where the metal roof material covers the flashing — runs along all the gable ends of our house. And we have many rooflines because our house grew. And parts of it are two stories high, other parts — the kitchen, the sunroom built off one end of our bedroom where a door takes you out onto a deck over the back of the house, where the children’s bedrooms were — are a single story high. (A single story! As though there’s ever a single story to anyone’s life.) So when I’m sitting at my desk and hearing that sound, when I’m lying in my bed hearing it, when we are anywhere in the house hearing it, it’s because weasels are hunting mice in the place where the roof meets the house. It’s almost an ecotone, an area of transition. Not in the house but not outside. I know bats sometimes rest there during the day and I don’t like to think that they are probably forming a part of the weasel family’s diet. But you don’t get to choose.

In the lore about weasels, much is made of their smell. Yet the one that came into our house two years ago and raced up and down the bookshelves in my study didn’t smell. And going out just now to see if the one in the roof was still around, I could only smell the morning lilies.

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My old friend Gaius Plinius Secundus (who ya gonna call?) remarks that weasels are the only animals that can kill a basilisk, those fearsome serpents capable of killing with a glance. And it seems that they are useful too in preserved form for any kind of snake bite.

There are two varieties of the weasel; the one, wild,1 larger than the other, and known to the Greeks as the “ictis:” its gall is said to be very efficacious as an antidote to the sting of the asp, but of a venomous nature in other respects.2 The other kind,3 which prowls about our houses, and is in the habit, Cicero tells us,4 of removing its young ones, and changing every day from place to place, is an enemy to serpents. The flesh of this last, preserved in salt, is given, in doses of one denarius, in three cyathi of drink to persons who have been stung by serpents: or else the maw of the animal is stuffed with coriander seed and dried, to be taken for the same purpose in wine. The young one of the weasel is still more efficacious for these purposes.

1 The ferret, most probably.

2 See c. 33 of this Book.

3 The common weasel.

4 Probably in his work entitled “Admiranda,” now lost. Holland says “some take these for our cats.

“The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

 

one star at a time

•July 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Last night was the first in ages when I woke in the small hours to see stars. A clear dark sky, and their beautiful return.

constellations

It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves one star at a time

— from “Bobcaygeon”, written by The Tragically Hip

a bird in the hand…

•July 20, 2016 • Leave a Comment

…weighs almost nothing. Yesterday morning, the sound of one hitting the window looking out on the arbutus and mountain ash trees. (On sunny days we close the bamboo blinds, in part so that birds feeding on the ash berries won’t fly drunkenly into glass.) I looked out, hoping to see nothing — sometimes the birds fly off, only a little stunned by their collision. But yesterday there was a tiny brown bird on the grass below the window. I went out and carefully picked it up. It was alive, looking around with its bright eyes. I held it upright, so it could breathe. And it could turn its head. Its wings were neatly folded against its body. Should I have been surprised that it was a wren? Or at least I think it was a wren. It was the right size, its beak was the right shape, long and slightly curved. But although its back was lightly speckled with soft russet, its tail wasn’t barred. So a young wren, a recent fledgling? It weighed almost nothing. But its heart against my fingers was strong. I tried putting it on a low crotch on the mountain ash but it tumbled out. I picked it up again and put it on a mossy stump.

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I had to leave for a few hours on errands and when I returned, the bird had flown. Or this is what I want to believe.

There have been other bird rescues this summer. A robin — again, a young one. And that one flew away in a matter of minutes. A northern flicker who screamed as I approached it — it was lying on its back, wings outspread. I gathered it into a tea-towel, trying to ignore its screams. And it too recovered. John watched it hop from the stump — the same stump! — to climb a nearby fir where it sat for some time.

Another year, a nuthatch. A kinglet.

But the wren, as I sit as my desk and fill in invoices for a book based on wrens and their relationships with a woman and an elderly man living on the west coast of Vancouver Island, their music…I was glad to have a moment yesterday when the full weight of a wren paused in my hands.

The late Irish poet Michael Hartnett wrote a beautiful poem, in Irish first, and then translated to English, in which he remembers young wrens flying from their nest and forming a necklet around him in a damp meadow. A moment of wonder, and also a premonition of vocation:

To them I was not human
but a stone or tree:
I felt a sharp wonder
they could not feel.

That was when the craft came
which demands respect.
Their talons left on me
scars not healed yet.

–from “A Necklace of Wren”

 

how the sky changes

•July 17, 2016 • 2 Comments

This time last summer I was yearning for rain. There were dry weeks. Months. Mornings I’d wake to the clear blue sky and I’d begin the watering early, before the sun was up. This time last summer I was picking buckets of tomatoes and beans. The tomatillos were 7 feet tall.

This year the days are mostly grey. I think there might be one tomato just beginning to ripen. Beans are in flower. Tomatillos are perhaps a foot and a half tall — a couple of them. The others — and to be fair, these were only discovered in the compost a week or two ago — are maybe 10 inches.

So the sky changes. The garden is different. In some ways everything is different. With that grey sky comes a series of small dark shadows. Some of them are personal and some of them are global and I’m not sure where the division is right now. Or if there even is one. Or what to do. The clouds cover the sun most days. Their darkness is, I hope, momentary. Transitory. Yesterday when I woke, the sky was grey again. And I didn’t want to stay home, looking out at it, trying to shake its affect. Turning on the news every hour. Let’s get the mid-morning ferry to Powell River, I said, and so we did. I love the ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay. Sometimes we see porpoises, but not yesterday. But the mountains, the water coming down off them in silver falls, a few eagles, isolated cabins on points of land. Groves of arbutus on south-facing islands.

We drove as far as Okeover Inlet, Lucinda Williams on the stereo, to the Laughing Oyster for lunch. It has the feel of the old coast — its deck of weathered wood, its view over water

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And somehow the clouds were not quite so dark as those at home. (See that little strand of blue, stitching land to land across water?) I felt I could see as far north as anyone could want and the food was wonderful, particularly this lemon semifreddo I had for dessert.

lemon semifreddo

And the ferry home was that old familiar route, past Nelson Island, and through Agamemnon Channel.

Lookin’ out the window
Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
Car wheels on a gravel road

                  –Lucinda Williams

It was our gravel driveway, the car wheels bringing us home, and they were my tears at bedtime, for all that could not be clear and blue, a sky, a world, a darkness as clouds blocked out the sun.

snakes on the warm rock

•July 12, 2016 • 2 Comments

There’s a small stone wall by the deck where our hot-tub is and in summer there are lizards and snakes taking advantage of the warm rock. I suspect they overwinter in the little caves under the rocks. For a few days now, two snakes have been nosing around each other whenever I pass the area. And just now I interrupted them mating. How often do you see snakes mating? This was not like those photographs or videos of hibernaculum where hundreds or thousands of snakes all entwine together for warmth in winter and then mate like crazy once spring comes. This was just two. And once I’d backed away, they coupled again, their faces alert and beautiful.

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I don’t know if they’re Thamnophis sirtalis, the common garter snake, or the northwestern garter snake (Thamnophis ordinoides). To tell, you have to examine the scutes or scaly plates in the epidermis and I’m not about to try. But they’re pretty harmless, at least to humans. I often see them ingesting slugs and for this they use their upper and lower jaws independently. It’s strange to watch, as though the jaw dislocates while the prey is eaten. And then you can see it move down the snake’s throat and along its digestive system.

The female of this pair will give birth to live young later this summer. It’s a privilege to see these moments, like the appearance of small gods or emissaries. I’ve watched them sun themselves and eat and even drink from a saucer of water left on the grass. I’ve found their shed skins under the rhododendrons, transparent empty vessels, some with the eye-sockets still visible. I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Snake”:

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

“I tasted my way back to the long table…”

•July 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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From “Ballast”, a work-in-progress:

In the thatched house at the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum near Edmonton, some rough linens, lengths of bright woven cloth on the benches of the good room where guests would be brought, where a wedding was celebrated by 70 guests eating and dancing, the “owner” told us, a man from Bukovina whose daughter-in-law worked in the fenced garden. There were potatoes, beets, feathery fronds of dill everywhere, self-sown, a hardy variety: did it travel with the family from Bukovina, a twist of paper containing its seeds, its beloved flavour, the flavour of home? Along with Black Krim tomatoes, Koda cabbages (from Polish relations), the Viktoria Ukrainskaya peas? Seeds traded with Mennonites for their own hoarded heritage, with Sudeten Germans and Croatians and Armenians for cucumbers, along with Lyaliuks from Belarus. We ate cabbage rolls and cucumber salad green with dill at the snack bar and I tasted my way back to the long table set up in the backyard of my aunt and uncle where my father’s family gathered every time we visited Edmonton, the woman in the kitchen all morning rolling dough and filling pedeha with soft mashed potato and cheese curd and sliced green onions so strong my eyes watered. Slices of hard sausage dark with caraway, and rolls with hard crusts. My uncles held a fist of bread and a glass full of something clear which they drank down, grimaced, then laughed. We had our own drink, raspberry juice with a whiff of vinegar, compot it was called, and was poured from the quart jars, murky with floating fruit, we were asked to bring from a certain shelf in the cellar where spiderwebs draped the windows. Sometimes we pretended to be the uncles, drinking deeply and dancing with our glasses raised high, laughing and slurring our speech. We didn’t know what sorrows they carried in their pockets, hidden away at times like those, but tolerated by their wives who cooked and wiped at red faces with a tea-towel damp with steam.

 
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