Watering the Melba

•May 22, 2018 • 5 Comments

Yesterday this photograph arrived from Ottawa, with the caption, “Watering the Melba”:

watering the melba

These two young men are very dear to me. The taller one is my son. He was two years ago when we had land cleared below our house for an orchard. He and his younger brother, then an infant (and now a mathematician), sat in their car seats in our old brown pickup truck when we went to buy apple trees from Mike Poole on Norwest Bay Road in Sechelt.

Those first trees—bought from a man who collected heritage varieties and had an apple tasting weekend at his orchard on Norwest Bay Road in West Sechelt: we tasted, then ordered a Melba, a Golden Nugget, a Cox’s Orange Pippin. The trees were tiny, and we planted them reverently, shrouding them in old gillnet salvaged from the dump.

The Melba was my favourite. I loved sitting on the big flat rock under the mature tree, gorging on its fruit. When we finally gave up on our orchard and when John arranged for someone to come and clear out the underbrush to create a firebreak as a sort of insurance against what we fear most during the long hot summers that have come with climate change, he asked the guy to work around the Melba. But maybe the guy misunderstood or maybe he didn’t care. Our Melba is gone, and so is the Cox’s Orange Pippin, though I think the Golden Nugget is still there. I don’t go down there anymore because it makes me sad though in truth it’s been ages since we’ve able to count on any fruit because of the way elk, deer, and bears have damaged the trees. Gillnet, strands of wire, strands of wire with an electric current, chicken wire—the animals found a way through.

I was curious this morning to read a bit more about Melbas. My first thought when the photograph arrived yesterday was that Ottawa might be too cold for what I think of as a delicate tree. But this is what I found out on a site devoted to heritage apples:

Melba was developed in 1898 by the Central Experiment Farm in Ottawa, Canada, and introduced commercially in 1909. Lightly sweet with a hint of tartness, Melba’s fine, white flesh and thin skin give it a pleasing crispness, and it is good for both fresh eating and cooking. Its skin is yellow to lime in color, with streaks and blushes of pink and red.

Melba’s parents are McIntosh and Liveland Raspberry. Also known as Lowland Raspberry or Red Cheek, Liveland Raspberry is an early season apple that originated in the Lithuanian province of Lievland. Now rare, it was introduced into the United States in 1883. While McIntosh contributes to Melba’s fragrant, sweet-tart flavor, Liveland Raspberry influences its early ripeness, and supplies its tender flesh and thin skin.

The younger man in the photograph is my grandson, who is two, the same age his father was when we brought home our Melba. In “Ballast”, in Euclid’s Orchard, I wrote, “I’m interested in how plants travel, how they are carried to new places, how they are botanical palimpsests, in a way. And how they hold stories,some plain and true, and some cryptic.” The first thing I thought of when I woke this morning was the Melba in Ottawa, newly planted, newly watered, with a young family to care for it (another grandson is anticipated in July) and to enjoy its beautiful fruit.



•May 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

pipe band

For more than a few years, we’ve been away over the May long weekend. Last year it was to Edmonton where we helped Brendan and Cristen replace a porch and build a deck under a leafy maple in one corner of their Strathcona yard. For several years before that, it was to Ottawa to help Forrest and Manon build a deck, then a pergola the next year to provide support for grape vines to shade their summer dinners.

But for the first, oh, twenty years we lived here, we always went to the May Day parade in Madeira Park. When I was a child, my mum always took us to the Victoria parade and it went on for ages—every school band in the city and maybe even the province marching, floats, old cars, banners, clowns throwing candy, and is it just my imagination or was it always hot? My mum never bought us pop or cotton candy and we’d walk home afterwards, cranky and sun-burnt.

The Pender Harbour parade was always just long enough. A single marching RCMP officer in parade dress, a single band (a pipe band, with one black piper with dreadlocks providing the only diversity in those days), a couple of floats, kids on bikes with crepe paper threaded through the spokes, the volunteer fire crew sounding the sirens as they drove the firetruck, hoses spraying those unlucky enough to be within range. And yes, throwing candy. Some years the snow plow would be festooned with balloons. One year an eccentric woman marched alone, a hood covering her head, a papier mâché head carried under her arm, and a sign on her back reading, “Ann Boleyn can be found at the library.” After the parade, everyone went to the school field where a May Pole waited for the dance. And there was a basketball tournament my son Brendan waited for. Booths with games my daughter loved. Cotton candy. A beer garden adjacent to the barbeques set up by the local fishermen and where a plate of halibut and potato salad cost 5 bucks. You saw everyone you knew there. Grown children came back for the parade and the dance that evening.

This year we’re home. And Angelica is here. When John picked her at the seaplane yesterday, she asked if we could go to the parade. So we did. It hasn’t changed much, apart from the fact that old cars opened it, vintage ones I guess you’d call them, and then the lone RCMP officer who had to stamp in place for a bit as people took pictures of the old cars. One or two more floats. Fewer kids on the May Queen float because the demographic of this small community has shifted. Fewer young families and more retired people. But we bought fudge and watched the little kids next to us scramble for candy tossed by the firefighters. There was even a Volvo driven by an older couple who’d somehow entered the fray inadvertently and were simply driving ahead of the last float, trying to find their way out of the procession.  And I remembered every other parade, or maybe just one (because they were all so similar), the one where the playschool kids were dressed as Care Bears and the mothers had to paint a backdrop of trees and bears or maybe the one where the kids were a school of fish and we had to make cardboard fish for them to hang from their shoulders with suspenders. One year, when Angelica was in grade 6, she rode the May Queen float as one of the attendants. And it meant work for the mothers. I was writing about bears then, a long essay, “month of wild berries picking”, and I used the occasion as a postscript.

It’s nearing the long weekend when my daughter will join girls of her age to ride on a parade float as queens and princesses of May in our community. For this they need dresses, or gowns really, and a willing group of mothers to help plan and decorate the float.

My daughter’s gown is finished, a blue so true to nature that I keep seeing it around me—in the opening buds of pulmonaria and scilla, the intense spring sky, the carpet of a flower I’m not familiar with in an abandoned homestead by Sakinaw Lake where we go to collect long lengths of ivy to garland the sides of the flatbed truck that the mothers are transforming into a spring grove for their daughters.

The bear has been around this spring. We haven’t seen him yet although the dogs have been barking and running into the woods in the early mornings and we’ve seen the piles of excrement on our walks for the past two weeks. I’ve been studying them, wondering at the diet of the bear, how he can sustain himself on grasses and what appear to be shoots of thimbleberry and primeval horsetails. Wondering too, when I find piles on the trail that is one of our property boundaries, whether he was entering out woods or leaving them when he left his mark.

—from “month of wild berries picking”, Phantom Limb (Thistledown Press, 2007)

Today, watching the girls on the boat trailer their mothers had turned into a pirate ship, Angelica said, I remember that we were shown how we had to wave. Like this…” and she slowly passed her hand back and forth, like a young queen. For a moment, I was there in that time of wild berries, bears, draping ivy over the plastic lawn chairs arranged on a fern-strewn truck bed, imagining the girls enacting again the spring rituals of gowns and flowers, anticipating the dance.

may queens


•May 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

this year

I’ve just been mowing grass and thinking about memory. In a way, grass mowing is an act of memory. You can just let your muscles remember how to coax the mower over the rough ground (we don’t exactly have a “lawn”; we have cleared areas that have accumulated moss and wild grasses and drifts of oregano, so beloved by bees…), you watch for rocks, sleeping snakes, but mostly your mind drifts. You remember all the springs you’ve dragged a mower across the grass, though to be honest it’s usually John who does the mowing. You remember the old vegetable garden, before the septic field gave up and had to be rebuilt, giving you the opportunity to lay out proper raised boxes in a fixed geometry, with paths between them. The old garden had beds that continued to sink, no matter how much seaweed and manure and alfalfa you added to them over the seasons.

One reason I’ve been thinking about memory is because I’ve read several accounts of how scientists have supposedly transplanted memory from one California sea hare (a hermaphrodite sea snail) to another. The experiment involved implanting wires into the snail tails, giving them electrical shocks, inducing a defensive action, then transferring RNA, or Ribonucleic acid (one of the 3 biological macromolecules necessary for life),  via injection, to another snail, where it seems the sensitivity to the electrical prod had been transferred. (Snails who were wired but not shocked did not transfer the sensitivity to the animal receiving RNA.)

Not everyone is convinced that memory is being transferred in this process. In an article in the Guardian, I read this:

Tomás Ryan, who studies memory at Trinity College Dublin, is firmly unconvinced. “It’s interesting, but I don’t think they’ve transferred a memory,” he said. “This work tells me that maybe the most basic behavioural responses involve some kind of switch in the animal and there is something in the soup that Glanzman extracts that is hitting that switch.”

But Ryan added that radical thinking about memory was sorely needed: “In a field like this which is so full of dogma, where we are waiting for people to retire so we can move on, we need as many new ideas as possible. This work takes us down an interesting road, but I have a huge amount of scepticism about it.”

I don’t know, tell me I’m wrong, but this kind of experimentation seems excessive. Why on earth should we be tampering with memory, any organism’s memory? Surely that’s a profoundly disrespectful trespass. Imagine how it could be used in the future (remembering how the tendency to exploit life-forms for the sake of science has been a hallmark of our species). I can imagine researchers making an argument for transplanting or removing memory from humans who have suffered terrible trauma and you might say there’s justification for this in order for those individuals to live lives without that particular suffering but who would decide? Who would be ultimately responsible for determining what memories should be removed and from whom?

In the meantime California sea hares are being wired and shocked and injected in order to make room for new research ideas, “radical  thinking about memory.”

Last night we watched the pair of coyotes in what remains of our orchard and after they left, we watched a black bear sow, possibly the same one we saw last year, and the year before, with her two cubs. I’ve read that bears have quite sophisticated memory maps that allow them to move across a landscape feeding from remembered and reliable food sources. It’s what brings them down from the berry patches to the salmon streams year after year and to our orchard in years past for the apples and pears. I think this mother is helping her cubs to develop their own maps but is probably puzzled by how the orchard has changed. Last May this mother, if it’s the same one, urged her yearling up onto the second story deck where we grow our tomatoes and the young one dragged several big pots down the stairs before realizing there was nothing in them to eat. Not yet. And was it the mother who encouraged the yearling to drag down the mason bee house above the tomato plants tucked against a warm wall?

Right this minute I can hear a robin singing the long beautiful salmonberry song, as complicated and beautiful as a partita. In the moment is every time I’ve heard it, something deep and complicated, not easily transferred via injection to anyone else. Taken. I think of Gary Snyder’s beautiful sequence, “Little Songs for Gaia”, some of them I remember almost perfectly, each of them observant and alert to the paradoxes of being alive at this point in the history of the planet:

The stylishness of winds and waves—
nets over nets of light
reflected off the bottom
nutcracker streaks over,

Nature calls,
bodies of water
tuned to the sky.

“Find a need and be filled by it.”

“…we can’t help growing older.”

•May 14, 2018 • 2 Comments

“O day after day we can’t help growing older.
Year after year spring can’t help seeming younger.
Come let’s enjoy our winecup today,
Nor pity the flowers fallen.” —Wang Wei (Tang Dynasty poet, c. 699-759)

just now

This May is warm and beautiful. Today, driving back from errands and lunch in Sechelt, the thermometer in our car read 24° until we reached the hill above Sakinaw Lake and then it read 27°. I am watching the tomato plants grow by the minute. And the purple tomatillos I planted, the ones that sulked for weeks, are also shooting up. Beans are green and vigorous, the kale is, well, everywhere (because it seeds itself so happily and prolifically), and the first rose is out, a Madame Alfred Carrière, soft blush pink, almost white. Last night a friend came for dinner and we sat out in the falling light and he wondered what we’d done with our orchard. Looking down the bank from the deck, he could see what I try not to think about: an area scraped clear of salal and spindly cedars, both of which had encroached upon the old area of grass, moss, and fruit trees. Some of the trees had been broken by bears. And with the shift in our climate, with the long dry weeks of summer that were once rare but now seem to be the norm, John has been increasingly concerned about fire. He wanted a cleared area to act as a fire-break if the woods ever did burn. He arranged for a guy with a machine to come and do stuff I didn’t want to know about.

Our friend has been coming here for more than 30 years. He noticed all the lovely things—the faint birdsong, the wisterias in full and glorious bloom, the clematis fully recovered after the willow that supported it died and fell, taking the vine down with it. We watched blue orchard mason bees and paper wasps and drank wine as the air cooled once the sun went down. Overhead the various wind-chimes sounded their own music of shells, wood, and copper, all animated by the evening air.

I woke in the night, wondering how to allow myself to acknowledge the actual space where our orchard was. I try not to look at the bare ground when I stand on the deck overlooking that area. Last month, I refused to go down to smell the stray blossoms on a stunted pear, a stubborn Melba apple. But life is too short and too precious to turn away from what I’ve loved and what changed. As I’ve changed. As everything changes.

I did go once or twice over winter when various family members were here and wanted fires to roast marshmallows. Henry and Kelly helped John pile more sticks on the fire; Arthur too a few months later. It’s a different place. Maybe that’s the way to think of it, populated by others now—we saw a pair of coyotes trot across the cleared space in February, scouting out territory for their own family, at that point still unborn.


This morning I woke to the most generous review of Euclid’s Orchard. It has received lovely attention from people I know and some I don’t know and so it’s somehow easier to try to adjust to what is. What was has been recorded and loved. And now it’s time to make peace with the new possibilities of clear space, a few old trees, the delicate feet of others testing the ground, its potential, its seclusion.

“…of origins”

•May 13, 2018 • Leave a Comment
mum on gonzales beach

Mum on Gonzales Beach, with Dan

Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters, and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.

                    —from “Tokens”, in Euclid’s Orchard

“I meant to do my work today…”

•May 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I wondered what the shadow was hovering over me as I filled a pot with compost. And looking up, I saw the most elegant western tiger swallowtail in the lilacs bent with blossom over the compost box. But when I returned with a camera, the butterfly wouldn’t alight on the lilac and I couldn’t take its portrait.

And I wish I could share with you the sound of bees in this flowering crabapple tree, one of two given us decades ago by John’s mum. I stood underneath and saw that almost every branch held bees or other pollinators and the humm…mmm of them was beautiful

bee loud tree

Even if you are a terrible photographer (no patience with dials and buttons), the world you see through a lens is a little different from what you see with your bare eye. When I turned from the lilac, I saw this bean structure I made the other day, an extra (because you can never have too many beans), waiting for its dependents. This year? What we call “home” beans—an assortment of mature beans grown every year from saved seed, their names forgotten long ago, and in any case they’re all planted together. And I’ve also started a lot of a French filet called “Triomphe de Farcy”. (The small filets make such delicious pickled beans.)


Coming back to the house, that hum again. And looking up, I could see the wisteria over the patio is an opening haze. It’s almost always on time for Mother’s Day and what a gift to walk under it, both this one and the one over our dining table on the west-facing deck. (Patio is north-east facing.) Hummingbirds and bees keep plunging into the flowers. This wisteria began its life in Suffolk and came as a rooted sucker in John’s mother’s suitcase on one of her summer visits to her mother in the small seaside town where she lived.

wisteria haze

And just by the step, the beauty of maidenhair ferns lifted—just a small clump—from a ditch on Sakinaw Lake Road ten years ago. You can see why it is a plant used in decorative baskets, for imbrication. Look at the black-lacquered stems!


I thought of a poem I loved in childhood, one a teacher read to our class in grade two, and the opening lines were in my mind as I walked from lilac to crabapple to wisteria to ferns:

I meant to do my work to-day-
But a brown bird sang in the apple-tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.

—Richard Le Gallienne

Well, it wasn’t the leaves but a myriad of bees and a huge swallowtail and each spring moment unfolding like a book of secrets.

“…full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys…”

•May 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

fraser below lillooet

From a work-in-progress:

I find the rivers I love, the ones I dream about. I find them in the atlas and realize they too have their difficulties. They rise in springs or seep from marshes or the melting of glaciers, they gather, they flow, so clean in their beginnings, and unless they become grounded or are endorheic, they arrive at the great oceans of the world full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys. There will have been diversions. There will have been accidents. There might have been meanders and braidings and temporary islands and dams.

A deep river, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
And such goings on: red blossoms glaring with white!

Among spring’s vociferous glories, I too have my place:
With a lovely wine, bidding life’s affairs bon voyage.