posts

redux: radio’s perfect at night…

(Note: I interrupt the ellipsis to say that I am missing the opportunities, taken for granted in Beforetimes, for short trips. It’s been almost a year since we’ve travelled off the peninsula and that was for John’s surgery last October. Hardly a holiday. We’ve cancelled our plans to drive to Edmonton next week because given the Covid numbers in Alberta, it no longer feels safe to do that. Instead, we will go to Kamloops and environs for a few days to spend time in one of our favourite landscapes.)

____________________

…when you’re driving the dark highway home from the ferry and Bruce Cockburn is offering a playlist on the CBC. You tune in late, much later than you think, and first, just past Roberts Creek, it’s Ian and Sylvia Tyson singing “Four Strong Winds”, which has you thinking ahead, to Thursday (“Think I’ll go out to Alberta/ weather’s good there in the fall”) when you’ll fly to see your baby grand-daughter in Edmonton, those sweet harmonies part of how you came of age yourself. And then, just before Sechelt, it’s Joni Mitchell singing “Amelia”, with its beautiful high notes and its hexagons of the heavens, the strings of her guitar, and those geometric farms, which you’ll see as your plane descends after crossing the Rockies. Perfect at night as the moon appears, not blood-red or in full eclipse (you missed that while you napped in the car on the ferry), but shrugging its shoulder until the grey shadow falls away. Leonard Cohen sings of the future, the one that is almost upon us:

Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul…

Oh, and Sarah Harmer, as you drive home, home past Halfmoon Bay, makes it personal:

A raincoat and a French beret
The rolling hills of past mistakes
Like quiet under cloud

And I will long look to the churning sea
This call to arms means wrap them
Around the first person you see.

And then, just before the coyote crosses the road near Kleindale, Bruce has the good sense to ask Tom Waits to sing you the last miles:

Far far away a train
Whistle blows
Wherever you’re goin
Wherever you’ve been
Waving good bye at the end
Of the day
You’re up and you’re over
And you’re far away.

And when you arrive, the moon is waiting, full and silver as though nothing has ever happened and the world is still hopeful and waiting for tomorrow.

moon

hoard

humminbird tail

It’s the last day of summer. Lately I’ve been thinking about it, remembering its beauties, regretting the things I didn’t accomplish. But mostly remembering. The first summer of my greenhouse, which brought me such pleasure, though to be honest the pleasures were mostly in May, because June and July were the months of the heat dome when I had to sluice down the greenhouse floor several times a day, on top of everything else. But yes, pleasure, as the seedlings grew and the frogs found the leaves to perch on and the scented geraniums filled with space with their fragrance — lemon, rose, deep forest green, oranges, nutmeg.

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…
 

That’s Keats, of course, and for a perfect gift to yourself on the last day of summer, listen to Marianne Faithfull read “To Autumn”.

The other day we were walking up on the Malaspina trail, itself a gift, because finally John is able to walk greater distances. I don’t think we’ll be taking on any long hikes but an hour up the mountain, with the scent of dry grass and the sight of a herd of elk dissolving into the tree line, herded by a bull with an enormous set of antlers, was wonderful.

Do you make a hoard of summer memories to keep against the cold ahead? Mine includes all the children who raced around in the mossy area they called the Field and who came to the lake with us during the mornings of their visit, two of them learning to swim while they were here, suddenly pushing off and paddling in the generous water. It holds the bees in the oregano by the table where we had our coffee after our swim, 4 or 5 species, buried in the pink blossoms. The owls. The night we kept the little children up to see the Perseids, all of us on the upper deck in darkness, a few flashlights snapping on and off to make sure parents were near, and how suddenly one of them recognized the shape I was describing as the Big Dipper. How the meteors blessed us with their light, one at a time. How we wished.

There was the afternoon in early July when I heard a commotion in the sunroom off my bedroom and it was a hummingbird trapped inside, beating its wings against the glass. I grabbed a cloth, it might have been underwear, it might have been a t-shirt, and gently captured the bird, releasing it out the door, and then realizing it had dropped 5 tail feathers on the blue tile before it flew away at great speed. It happened so quickly I didn’t think to determine if the bird was an Anna’s or a rufous (although maybe that little tip of white means Anna’s?) but it was unforgettable. “A route of evanescence”, wrote Emily Dickinson, and how perceptive she was, capturing the mystery and unexpected nature of their visits with that line, “The mail from Tunis, probably”.

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel–
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal–
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,–
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride–

Over the next months, when it rains for days on end and we are still facing the uncertainty of an unsafe world, when the fires are still burning, all of us counting our losses, I will open my hoard of summer, take a moment to look at the little jar by my bed with its five tiny feathers, “a resonance of emerald”, and that fluid line of elk disappearing into the trees.

September zuihitsu, after rain

sept roses

1.

I went out to pick the tomatoes on the deck because last night the bears climbed the stairs to see about grapes. The grapes were already made into jelly, with thyme, but that didn’t stop the young cub from pulling down some vines, checking out the stems. They weren’t interested in the roses, heavy with rain, or the basil leaves bright with water. Who knows what they love best in darkness, no stars, and the salmon still keeping their vigil near the creek mouths, not quite ready. Who knows. You may learn to imitate a birdcall, said Rumi, but do you experience what the nightingale feels for the rose. Or what I feel when I cut their stems and bring them into my kitchen.

2.

On Thursday I swam in the lake in September sunlight. On Friday I made a fire against the morning chill and packed my basket for the pool. You’re the diver’s clothes lying empty on the beach, Rumi reminded me as I hung my jeans on a hook in the changes room. The creak of the garden gate as I checked the cabbages was one season turning into another.

persian poetry

3.

My friend and I were exchanging news. He sent a collection of his poems with a pear tree on the cover. I made rose-petal jelly, I wrote to him, and it tastes like Persian poetry. What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest. Rumi’s lines. His garden. Mine.

“A category into which something is put.”

zinnia blue

This morning I am thinking of beautiful writing, of beautiful writing by women, and how what I’ve read in recent months almost always has an interesting context. A textual construction deeply grounded in the quotidian. I’m not surprised. I’ve also been looking at textiles, mostly in photographs and in illustrations in archaeology papers, and I see how the work women do in the most practical ways has beauty. Their baskets, their weaving, their quilts, even the cordage used to bind tools, keep skins together for clothing, shelter, suspend fishing hooks in water, tether animals, anyway, the work of their hands and minds has always entranced me, made me feel part of a community through time and history.

I read a lot. 3 or 4 books a week. I don’t keep a list but mostly I can remember what I’ve read, or at least let’s say there are memorable books that I think about long after I’ve read them. Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction, which is often considered a genre but honestly? The book I’m reading on hand-dyeing has very little in common with Sinead Gleeson’s extraordinary Constellations: Reflections From Life. Turning to my dictionary doesn’t help much. Classification is defined this way:

Noun
[mass noun]

1.The action or process of classifying something.
‘the classification of disease according to symptoms’

1.1 biology: The arrangement of animals and plants in taxonomic groups according to their observed similarities (including at least kingdom and phylum in animals, division in plants, and class, order, family, genus, and species)
‘the classification of the platypus was one of the critical issues of the 1830s’

1.2 [count noun] A category into which something is put.
‘new classifications for drivers of commercial vehicles’

So. Is that clear? Not really. And I guess it doesn’t matter although sometimes it does. Right now it seems to me that the conversation about nonfiction usually means memoir. Yesterday I read Katherine May’s Wintering and yes, it’s a memoir. It’s also an investigation into weather and depression and the meaning of winter. I loved Beth Kaplan’s Loose Woman: My Odyssey From Lost to Found, an account of how an aspiring actress finds herself, literally and metaphorically, living with and caring for a community of damaged men in France. It has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, a through-line, and it is both heart-felt and well-crafted. Constellations is a collection of essays which has its own narrative coherence, though it’s not as structurally evident.

As an undergraduate, I remember reading a translation of “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, or “Lament for Art O’Leary”, a gorgeous and heartbreaking poem written by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th c. Irish noblewoman grieving the murder of her husband at the hands of an Anglo-Irish army officer. So I was always going to read Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s stunning A Ghost in the Throat, in which she searches for Ni Chonaill’s life (reduced to shreds in the historical record) and makes a text of shimmering beauty, like the quilts I remember seeing at Kilkenny Castle in 1979, pieced of silk and taffeta and fine linen, each scrap a footnote or gloss on domestic life, on broader history.

An ache, this salt-sorrow of mine,
that I was not by your side
when that bullet came flying,
I’d have seized it here in my right side,
or here, in my blouses’s pleats, anything,
anything to let you gallop free,
o bright-grasped horseman, my dear.

The other day, I wrote about Kathleen Jamie’s essays, their durable and practical beauty. And there’s Susan Olding’s Big Reader— essays about reading, yes, and loss, and how we are shaped by books, how they shadow us in our daily lives.

This morning I am grateful for women’s writing, women’s work, their vessels and twine and the patterns they impose on both the daily and the divine. Tall flowers, groundcovers, medicinals, ornamentals. A shelf of their books, kingdom and phylum, genus and species, fieldguides to the life I am living.

‘Some folk say time is a spiral…’ (Kathleen Jamie)

sunday morning, quilting

I’d forgotten I hadn’t finished Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie until I was looking for something else and found it on John’s side of the bed. Sometimes when I read at night, I fall asleep and when he comes up to bed, he puts whatever book I’ve left on top of the covers on his bedside table rather than walk around the bed to mine. This must have happened. So I opened the book, realized I’d read about half, including the incredible “In Quinhagak” in which Jamie joins a group of archaeologists in the remote Yup’ik community situated where the Kanektok River empties into the Bering Sea. It’s a place of light and wetlands where the thawing permafrost is reshaping the land and eroding a 500 year old settlement site. I remember reading that essay and thinking how beautifully Jamie wrote about it but also how she somehow let the place and the artefacts and the Yup’ik people and their culture take their place in her words, her descriptions. She wasn’t pushing herself to the fore, wasn’t asking the reader (me) to recognize her sensitivity or courage or intelligence. It’s a quality, inherent in her work, I’ve noted before: her essay collections Findings and Sightlines are treasures of quiet beauty. I remember her extraordinary collaboration with visual artist Brigid Collins, Frissure, in which she examined the scar left on her body after a mastectomy:

Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of silence.

What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line. And now I had a line – quite a line! – inscribed on my body. It looked like a landscape. Because it was changing colour as it healed, it seemed to me as if it had its own weather.

So over the past few nights, it’s been my unexpected pleasure to read what remained of Surfacing. And to recognize again, because I certainly felt this when I read Jamie’s earlier essays, how skillful a writer she is, how elegant, and how so much of what she writes about and notices echo my own interests. On Westray, one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, she (again) joins an archaeology crew as they excavate a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. Detail after detail, meditations on time and continuity, on what changes and doesn’t: I read farther into the night than I meant to just to follow her mind and her account of the work of the crew working against time (again), weather, funding sources drying up. She marvels at the little Westray Wife, or Orkney Venus (you can read about this tiny carved sandstone piece here), and I marvelled too because I am fascinated (as so many are) by the early representations of women found in various sites in Europe. (Mostly recently I’ve been looking at a Gravettian engraved Venus found in Předmostí in the Czech Republic, unusual for the geometrical elements used in the carving. The Westray Wife has interesting incisions in the decorative patterning too.)

On Westray, Jamie is intrigued by the spirals carved into rock, found on pottery fragments. After she meets a young couple who’ve come to the island to raise dairy cattle and to make artisanal cheese they call Westray Wife, she stands with them on their land for a few minutes:

     Amid the cows, we were looking inland at the island’s shallow valley. Their view was of a gloomy castle, and, beyond it, the small loch, then farms on the hills, sheep on the peaty summits, the climbing road, the chambered cairn, two or three small whirring turbines under the huge island sky.
     I said, ‘When the Neolithic people brought their cows ashore here, the first ones, all this land would have been wild. Can you imagine? I wonder what grew here then?’
     ‘I love this valley,’ said Nina. ‘Its different colours. Brown in the spring, then green. The cattle. Quiet, then noisy with tractors.’
     ‘I see it differently through your eyes.’
     ‘They were like us,’ Jason insisted. ‘Caring about their animals.’
     Some folk say time is a spiral, that what goes around comes around, that events remote to one another can wheel back into proximity. Leaving Nina and Jason I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of heart to know there is still room in the world for a summer’s day and a cow called Daisy.

When I was putting aside the book the other night, the night I returned to it after an absence of perhaps 3 months, I found the card inside that had come with it when it arrived from the Netherlands as a gift from my friend Anik. I’d made her a quilt, mostly as a thank you for a kindness on her part, and also as a housewarming gift for the house she had recently moved to with her husband and son. The quilt was log cabins, 4 of them, arranged around green pathways quilted with spirals. I wanted her to be reminded of the log cabin she was living in when we met and how we have stayed friends, our green paths perhaps metaphorical rather than actual, though on a quilt they can be both. In the centre of each cabin block, a red square for the hearth. Everything is connected, isn’t it? The hearths uncovered on Orkney, their spiral pots broken. While helping with the excavation at Quinhagak, there’s a wonderful moment when Jamie is screening some soil with a Yup’ik man:

     A smell was rising from the earth in the screen. It was familiar, domestic, not unpleasant. I worked on, wondering if I was imagining it, because it was the smell of cooking. Specifically, the smell of mince and tatties, staple dish of my childhood
     ‘Mike–I’m hallucinating. Can you smell that?’
     ‘The meaty smell? It’s because we’re down at the floor level now, where they did the processing. Seals, walrus meat, skinning, all that.’
     The air is so clean and sharp, you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.

On a cool morning, I’ll make a fire and sit by it stitching spirals. And in those inscriptions, time curls in on itself, holding stories and history and love. Sometimes they spool out across the ocean and sometimes they are the blanket that keeps me warm at night, keeps others in my care.

i

redux: “And the world seen through them wavers sometimes, then comes into focus.”

Note: 5 years ago today.

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of having my son Forrest, daughter-in-law Manon, and 11 month old grandson Arthur staying with us. Daughter Angelica came for a week in there and a few days ago we had a call from Edmonton to tell us that grandson Henry was born to our son Brendan, his wife Cristen, and their 2 year old daughter Kelly. It was a time of intense family activity, immediate and far-flung. Our house thrived on being full of some of its former occupants, the bedrooms lively again and the bathrooms steamy. We kept making meals. Barbecued sockeye salmon, roast lamb, prime-rib beef, pasta with pesto from the tubs of basil on the upper deck, tofu in spicy sauce with Savoy cabbage from the garden, omelettes with smoked salmon and delicious little fresh buffalo milk mozzarellas,  salads made with garden tomatoes and arugula, blueberry pancakes…We kept opening bottles of wine — Prosecco to celebrate births and returns, beautiful Tinhorn Creek Gamay to have with that lamb, Wild Goose Pinot Gris to drink with pasta (and their Autumn Gold for the tofu). Provençal rosé with appetizers of candied salmon and guacamole. And luckily the Persephone brewery is right by the ferry so we could get our growlers filled with their Golden Goddess ale.

This morning the house is quiet. Oh, the washing machine is whirling around with its loads of sheets, towels, diapers (I have a big basket of cloth diapers so that visiting grandbabies won’t have to bring their own)…Quilts will be aired outside today before being returned to the beds.

So a quiet house and a mountain of work to return to on my desk. Essays to finish. A novella to enter again — though that will probably wait for a week or so as we are heading off on a short road trip into the landscape it’s set in: Thompson and Fraser Canyons. I hope to sniff out a few ideas and to make sure I have the geography right.

In the meantime, I just went into the kitchen to get some coffee and saw how empty it was. Well, empty if you can call a cluttered room empty. I was reminded of an essay I wrote last year and need to edit a little before doing anything with it. When I wrote it, I was thinking of all that a house contains, beyond what is immediately visible. I was thinking of attachment and love. And in a rueful way, I was admitting that I will never receive an award for tidiest woman on earth. My mother’s generation had a saying that was very high praise indeed, and it will be never be said of me: You could eat off her floors. But you could sit on them with a baby and roll a ball back and forth. You could build a tower with brightly coloured blocks and have that baby slam it down with his small fists. You could tuck that baby into the space between your knees and read him a story, maybe even Peepo (though it’s called Peek-a-Boo in later editions) by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, in which a baby is surrounded by a loving and untidy family. And that baby would love the book.

kitchen.jpg

A set of old windows over the sink is not elegant but the windows came from the house we left when we moved our lives here. That house was built in the early years of the 20th century and because it was being demolished shortly after we moved, we were invited to take some of the windows, a pair of French doors which we used for a sunroom off our bedroom (and in turn, the sunroom opens to a second-story deck built over an extension of the far end of the house). The windows open with old brass catches, some of the panes have wavy glass, and I love them for their quirky beauty, how they frame pink roses and a birdbath hanging from the eaves, how the world seen through them wavers sometimes, then comes into focus. On their sill, a moonsnail shell, a wooden hen, a garlic pot, the largest goose-barnacle shell I’ve ever seen, and other clutter. Each piece has a story and the stories make up a life.

In magazine photographs of kitchens, there is no clutter. A few canisters. A single flower in a glass vase. Maybe an arrangement of perfect vegetables on polished granite. No children’s drawings and magnetic poetry on the fridge. No newspapers on the table, no quilting projects in a large Ghana basket. We live here. We are not tidy people. We make food, eat it by the fire, read magazines and books which pile up on surfaces, bring in the logs which drop moss and bits of bark and maybe the floor doesn’t get swept as often as it should. Because I have always loved being in the kitchen, I’ve managed to overlook its aging surfaces, much as I overlook my own. I’ve always said, Our place is rustic. I never meant it as an apology. I meant, This is who we are. Who I am. I bring back stones from special rivers and beaches, bones from arid landscapes where animals die and their skeletons are bleached by the sun, fossils, feathers, and these decorate the other windowsills and the top of the pine dresser we use for table linens and bottles of liqueur. Dust settles on them in all seasons. And the world seen through them wavers sometimes, then comes into focus.

“Where in the river is its privacy, its unknown side-channels…”

above the fraser

Last night I dreamed of the Fraser River, the stretch between Pavilion and Lillooet. Before the pandemic, we drove that way at least once a year, part of a road trip we’d take through our favourite parts of the province. This fall we plan to drive to Edmonton but we won’t do our usual meandering route. Maybe the dream was part of sense of dislocation I’ve been feeling. What do you love if everything is changed? Do you remember stopping at Lytton for the farmers market, do you remember ice cream at the Pavilion store? Do you? Yes.

Later in the week I expect to begin working on the copy-edited manuscript of Blue Portugal. In some respects it will be a way to spend time in beloved landscapes, here and in Europe, in and on rivers I may never visit again. Perfect fall work. In the meantime, here’s a passage from one of the essays, “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”:

12. The Fraser River, below Mile Zero Motel, Lillooet, B.C.

…in the perpetual slide of mountain and forest, in the erosion of mountain and gumbo rangeland, in the impact of whirlpool and winter ice, the river is forever mad, ravenous and lonely.” — Bruce Hutchison, The Fraser

The first time we stayed at the Mile Zero Motel, we were driving to a wedding in the Nazko Valley. That was the first day of the McLean Mountain Fire and we were uncertain whether it was a good idea to stay in Lillooet that night. We could see the flames on the mountainside, we could hear the crackling and explosion as trees candled and burned. A constant hum of activity as fire crews were dropped into the area and buckets of water were dumped from helicopters that carried them from the Fraser River flowing beneath the motel. But the town was lively so we decided to stay overnight. After checking in, we walked to the Greek restaurant for a very good dinner on a patio made cool with green vines. We drank golden retsina. After dinner we ambled along Main Street where many residents were sitting on lawn chairs arranged on the sidewalk, with coolers of beer and soft drinks beside them. It was like a parade but all the action was on the mountain – the helicopters edging close to flame, the smoke, huge plumes of orange flame, and the sizzle as water hit the hot spots. We hardly noticed the river.

A year or two later, in October, we returned to Mile Zero and its sad clean rooms. We had a little balcony off our standard queen and we sat on old chairs, drinking a glass of wine before heading out to dinner, and looking down on the wide Fraser River, and across where Simon Fraser observed “the metropolis of the Askeeih Nation.” It was a different river from the new green rush of water near Mount Robson. It was brown and steady, rippled like an animal, but not wild and turbulent. “This River, therefore, is not the Columbia,” Fraser wrote sadly. “If I had been convinced of this fact where I left my canoes, I would certainly have returned from thence.” But we, who’ve seen both the Columbia and the Fraser, in different seasons, were happy to be there, sipping wine from the Fort Berens vines across the river, the grapes made plump with its waters.

In the morning, before an early start to Pavilion, we took a trail down below the railway tracks, through pines and sage, choke-cherry and small rocky gardens of prickly-pear cactii, to the river’s edge. There were deer tracks everywhere and what were these, the black-ish red piles of damp matter, still steaming? Ah, bear scat, with the whiff of the animal still in the air as it grazed on choke-cherries just ahead of us. We returned to the trail and quietly ascended.

But to have seen the river in early light, close enough to dip our hands, to have skittered down the trail like returning deer, to have looked even briefly across this wide particular expanse while ospreys fell to the surface and rose with breakfast in their talons, was to continue the history of its watchers, its explorers, those who scavenge and forage on its banks, those who love its waters in every colour and tenor. The individual Nations Simon Fraser passed through, with the kindnesses shown him, and still memory of him in places where people have lived for tens of thousands of years:“We had every reason to be thankful for our reception at this place.” Green, frothy aquamarine, bottle dark, olive green, brown. To have shared for a moment its loneliness, its virtue, its solitary madness while a bear ambled along its shimmering

length, eating cherries, was to be grateful for water, even as we followed the restless river again, passing the fishing ledges and chasms and the remnants of an ancient village in the grass at Keatley Creek, past the mountains Simon Fraser had described as “the most savage that can be imagined.” Of course he did not linger. Where in the river is its memory of its young beginnings, a trickle to make men ravenous for what they imagine it contains or promises? White sturgeon, Chinook, pink, sockeye salmon, trout and char, seals as far upriver as Yale, osprey, herons, gold, transport, dominion. Where in the river is its privacy, its unknown side-channels, a place where a person could wash up and begin again?

49 45.453 N — 123 56.441 W

watercolour

On the first page of my work-in-progress is the title, Easthope, and under that: a novel? When I began to write, I wasn’t certain what I was going to do. Maybe it would be an extended essay on place and how we perceive it, how it changes as we change. Because the place where Easthope is set isn’t really called Easthope. It’s the village at the end of the road near me. It’s the place where we first looked at a property in 1979, not long after we got married, and I remember thinking, If we don’t buy this, maybe we’ll never have anything. It wouldn’t have suited us. Or it wouldn’t have suited us then. Maybe it would now. And, in a way, that’s where this story is leading. Because I’ve become very fond of the village at the end of the road and particularly during these strange times, where meaning and values are shifting, it seems to me to be a place that is intact.

In the past few days I’ve written 2000 words. I come up for air and wonder where I am. It’s the best way to feel when working on a novel or an essay. Transported and immersed. And this story has so many surprises. When the couple who have inherited the cabin on the Doriston Highway unlock the door and enter, they think at first that the walls are painted white. But then they realize there are washes of faint colour on them, soft outlines of trees, misty skies, as though the weather has come indoors. When they open a freezer, the neat packages of prawns, fillets of ling cod and salmon have GPS coordinates noted on them. I didn’t know any of this when I began. I know this sounds disingenuous but it’s true. There are some things I know– the names of the main characters, something about them, the name of their daughter–but I didn’t expect the rooms painted with weather. The fish.

This morning after our swim, I walked a little way along the shore and saw the island in the distance against the rise on the other side of the lake as a kind of watercolour, not unlike the rooms in Easthope. It’s the time of year, I guess, or the time of my life, or maybe my eyesight is fading. Or maybe this is how I will see the world for the next few years as I write this novel. This novel? I’m going to leave the question mark there for now.

a place for woodsmoke

breakfast time

This morning the jay was waiting for me when I came downstairs at 7. Waiting by the sliding door, hopping impatiently. I took out a handful of sunflower seeds and it ate quickly. It had places to go.

Do you? Do I? We went down to the lake for our daily swim and it was so quiet. No boats. No kingfisher. A few moths on the surface of the water like tiny fallen angels. When I was finishing my third set of laps, I took a minute to tread water for the pleasure of my body upright in the deep green, and a small trout made a little leap very near my shoulders. When we came home, it was almost cool enough for a fire.

Two days ago I opened my file named Easthope. It’s my novel-in-progress. I wanted to see if it was still there (given the precarious nature of the world) and if I was still interested in writing it. Yes, and yes. I could almost smell the woodsmoke as the main character and her husband make a fire in the house they’ve inherited, a small cabin on the Doriston Highway. I could also feel the cobbles of Lviv under my feet as the character walks on her way to meet a distant relative she has discovered through the miracle of DNA tests. How do these stories connect? Right now I have no idea, or wait, maybe I have an idea but I don’t know if it will work. If it will hold water. If it will burn with a steady heat like the fire my character is making in the woodstove in the snug little house on the Doriston Highway. If it will be as richly textured as the rushnyk the distant relative is holding her hand, a gift for her Canadian cousin. We’ll see.

The jay is back, wanting lunch. It shows up three times a day at least. Last night we were having supper on the deck and it appeared in the fir with a click and a churr. It did a nervous sidle as it eyed us and wondered if what we were eating– mezes: hummus, marinated eggplant, guacamole, vegetables, warm pita–might be worth trying. Sometimes two of them come, one obviously a juvenile for the way it complains and wants to be fed although it’s the same size as the other jay. One of my grandsons remarked last month that the jays are very blue. It’s a blue I dream of, the clearest richest cyan. In classical Greek,κύανος, meaning dark blue. The colour of lapis lazuli. I have a lapis lazuli necklace the shape of a tear drop. Some mornings when I see the jay, I want to weep for its colour, its constancy.

There will be a place in my novel for the jay and its child, a place for sacred towels embroidered in fine red thread, a place for woodsmoke and old boat engines crusted with oil, a place for the wings of moths on the surface on the lake, and a place for cobblestones smooth underfoot.

“the most archaic values on earth”

bears

This morning I looked up from a paper I was reading on my computer, “The Venus of our anxiety. The first art was visceral” by Paulo Tiago Cabeca, a Portuguese scholar and ceramicist, to see a young bear ambling by my study window. This is their time, at least where I live. They move down off the mountain where the berries are finishing towards the lake where the salmon are even now gathering to swim into the feeder creeks to spawn in a couple of months; the bears like to climb our crabapple tree for the scabby small fruits and they like to check out the grape vines over our pergola. Last year a mama and her small cub surprised me as I watered tomatoes on the upper deck. They were just below me, maybe wondering if it was worthwhile climbing the stairs. Seeing me, the mama urged her cub into one of the big firs where the woods begin at the edge of our grass. The little one quickly climbed high and the mum vanished into the forest, obviously nearby because I could her gutteral instructions and the cub’s bleating in reply.

The first art represented precisely these two major anxieties:
 the animal and the woman. The survival in the animals that were food or feed on us, and the continuity of the species was represented by the woman that gives birth. The paleolithic human did not rationalize the images. He just expressed them. In the figure of the woman – the so-called Paleolithic Venus – also the attributes of the female of the life-generating creature were particularly emphasized: the voluminous breasts, the prominent hips, the rather explicit sex.

In the winter of 2016/17, I underwent a number of procedures because I had mysterious nodes in my lungs that my specialist thought were metastatic tumours. They weren’t. They disappeared and have never recurred. But I remember undergoing a positron emission tomography (PET) scan at the B.C. Cancer Clinic and how I summoned up the image of the Laussel Venus as a kind of protection. Or did I summon her? She certainly appeared to me, as palpable as the paper gown I was wearing. I wrote about this in an essay that is part of my forthcoming Blue Portugal. I didn’t want to make the transition from a life-generating organism to one with metastatic lung cancer and I hoped the Venus would somehow keep me safe as I entered the machine that would detect possible tumours made evident by the radioactive tracers injected into my body.

During that period, I wore my necklace of bear amulets constantly too. It wasn’t on show. I kept it tucked into my clothing. But I’d reach up to my neck to find one of the small figures to smooth between my fingers, saying little prayers to myself. If I had a Venus amulet, I’d have done the same with her.

Everything that questions our existence causes us greater anxiety and that must be expressed.The appeasement, in the materialization of these anxieties, in the physical manipulation of them is revealing of this urgency and absolute need.

These bears don’t make me anxious. The ones that drag out our garbage cans from the wooden enclosure do. There’s nothing in the cans to attract them. We are beyond careful with our garbage. But they drag out the cans, they tear apart the compost boxes, and well, those are the ones I would rather not meet on a dark path. The ones keeping their distance, though? I love to see them. They are an indication of proper courtesies, healthy adjacencies. The one this morning ambling by was no doubt heading lakeward. In fact, not five minutes after it skidaddled into the woods when I went quietly onto the deck with my camera, I heard a dog barking wildly down by the lake.

I think of what Gary Snyder wrote decades ago in Earth House Hold:

As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.

I think these have always been my values and sometimes, as when the Venus appears during a difficult moment or a young bear walks past the deck where I am reading about art and consciousness and the nature of survival, as wildfires and a pandemic still rage in the world we have perhaps not loved enough, I touch my neck, smoothing the little figures in the hollow of my throat.