summer afternoon(s)

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Henry James

They are beautiful words to me, too. Since early July we’ve had so many memorable ones. The blue ones,

blue afternoon

the grey ones at Trail Bay while some people swam in the ocean and others sat on logs looking towards Vancouver Island under the clouds.

grey afternoon

There were purple afternoons when children found sea stars tucked under the rocks and seaweed at low tide,

purple and green afternoon

and there was yesterday, not photographed, when I floated in Middle Bay at Francis Point, floated, drifted, while the little boys made a habitat for hermit crabs and tiny snails and an oyster cemented to a stone in an orange bucket shaded with bladder wrack, calling goodbye as they emptied everything into the tide as we left.

redux: “like the figures of a magic lantern”

Note: I woke this morning from a dream of the Carpathian mountains and remembered this post from September, 2016. Three years later, I was in the mountains myself and now, 6 years later, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to return.


Who can say how you find a book or it finds you? I was in the Sechelt Library the other day, idly looking through the non-fiction shelves for something, anything, to read. I’ve been going to this library for a long time and I’m familiar with the holdings. It’s not a large library but the staff are unfailingly helpful and I’ve more than used my allotted share of interlibrary loans, though no one points that out; they keep getting me whatever books I request.

So there was a book I hadn’t seen, by an author I’d never heard of. The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe From Finland to Ukraine, by Paolo Rumiz, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Rumiz and his traveling companion, a photographer called Monika, make their way from Finland, near Lake Inari, along the path once described by the Iron Curtain and now (more or less) the scaffolding of the European Union, through countryside, industrial towns, abandoned synagogues, Orthodox communities, using buses and rattling trains for the most part, though also hitchhiking and at one point renting a car in order to visit places they couldn’t reach otherwise. It’s a book I read with my atlas nearby. I’d read and then find the relevant page in my Oxford Concise World Atlas (third edition), the one John gave me to replace the atlases of our children’s childhoods, the ones with both the British Empire (in pink) and the USSR taking up more than their share of the maps.

There are no maps that contain all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Sirte. From a longitudinal perspective, they are all partial maps, which seldom go further north than Saint Petersburg. This made it difficult for me not only to plan, but even to imagine my journey. Before my departure, a sense of the distances escaped me. The immense boreal lands were too shrunken, those closer to the Mediterranean too enlarged. So I had to make my own map, on a scale of one to one million, transferring pieces of various atlases onto a single strip of paper, long and narrow, folded like an accordion. I marked out my possible itinerary in red, thousands of versts long, and next to it in blue the European Community frontier, and between the two lines there was a kind of courtship, with each endlessly pursuing the other. At the margins of the strip, as in a dazibao, a slew of annotations drawn from books, Russian maps, notes gathered catch-as-catch-can from other travelers. (From the endnotes: A verst is an ancient Russian measure of length, equivalent to 0.66 miles. A dazibao is a large-character, handwritten Chinese wall poster, frequently associated with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.)

This book took me to places I’d never heard of — the Kola peninsula, Kaliningrad, Lake Onega — and places I had heard of, in poetry, legend, song: Karelia, Aluksne in Latvia, the wooden churches of Bukovyna, where my grandfather came from. We travel by the Murmansk-Novorossiysk train, through mountains and past swollen rivers. We visit the Old Believers on Lake Peipsi, “their vegetable gardens, loomed over by spectacular gray-blue clouds, are the most beautiful in Europe. Little gardens of Eden.” It’s a book to savour. I read a little each night and then found myself picking it up for ten minutes here and there during the day because I wanted its prose, its locations, the experience of entering a new country  where people resisted Russification with song: “We resisted the Communist Big Brother by singing. Our identity found shelter in music, in the art of allusion, in the slanted reading of the lyrics.” This book is a song, too, written in a dense and lyrical style; its observations are at once erudite and mythical. There are ghosts that haunt the author as he explores the ruined buildings of frontier towns that had seen and heard more than their share of war, the forests with their mass graves and the silence of streets after dark when one might have expected to hear music, liturgy, the lively sound of human social activity. (Instead, a car door slams and there’s sound of a fist hitting a face.) Security forces enter train compartments with wolf-dogs and search bags for smuggled cigarettes or Ipods taped to women’s thighs like garters. Old women cook blini and offer moonshine and stories.

In the Carpathians, nearing the end of the journey, more magic:

…In the immense silence of the evening, I drink a beer with my feet soaking in the river and a dog by the name of Uaciata sitting next to me, come down to greet me from the house next door. Her name, so tender, means “sketch.”

Stars. Dinner of cured ham and cheese by the hearth in the inn. Above it, the room looks out on the river; that’s the only sound I can hear. The ideal place for a good rest, but I can’t get to sleep. Monika is sleeping so deeply, it seems she’s on another planet. I, on the other hand, suddenly feel crushed under the weight of all the things we’ve seen. Too many. I have no idea why this is happening to me here and now, at the centre of the continent. It’s as though all the notes I’ve taken in the last month have fallen on me at once. A month as long as a year. Six full notebooks. How I manage to decipher them after all this time? I’ve never made a journey so dense with encounters, and all that lived experience turns into weight, ballast. I’ve been working meticulously, maybe too much, like a botanist or entomologist, gathering, recording, reproducing, investigating with a magnifying glass.

Just before six, just to pass the time, I start rummaging through my pack and discover that my rigid blue notebook that I’ve been filling with drawings isn’t there. I look again: nothing. Nothing, nothing. A month’s work up in smoke. I’d drawn the little Belarusian houses, Lithuanian beer labels, Norwegian road signs, the Cyrillic menus from the inns in Murmansk. I curse, dripping with sweat. The idea of going back up into the mountains above Lviv without a car is simply crazy; plus, I don’t have enough time for such a long detour. I’m desperate. But just as I’m getting ready to resign myself, out comes the damn thing from a side pocket as dark as night, and for a second, its seventy drawings seem to shine in the semidarkness like the figures of a magic lantern.

The book was like a magic lantern for me. I read, I followed, tracing the route in my big cloth-bound atlas, Followed the faint but seductive light, and I thought of all the places I would never see — because, realistically, Rumiz’s trip was not the sort I’m about to embark on now, a grandmother of three, with time constraints and perhaps not the stamina I had as a younger woman, roaming through Europe with a backpack stuffed with maps and a notebook of my own (though not perhaps the drawing skills of this author). But a magic lantern, because it shone light on a particular small riddle I’m trying to solve. Not a full and revealing light but a light of innuendo (which sounds like something Wallace Stevens might have written). For the past five or six years, I’ve been trying to figure out the geographies, physical and otherwise, of my father’s parents. They emigrated to North America in the early years of the 20th century and their Europe was not the Europe of today. The borders have shifted. They were citizens of places that no longer exist as political entities. But I know a few things and occasionally I learn a little more. In the town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, not too far from where my grandfather was born in what is now Ukraine, though he would have called himself Bukovynian, Paolo Rumiz meets an elderly couple, Viktor and Lyuba. They sit on the banks of the Smotrych River, a tributary of the Dniester, and remember the Jews who were herded out of town by the Germans (“They killed them in a village not far from here, called Mikraion. The ground was red with blood.”), the old days when the black earth of this granary of Europe could have fed half the world, the skilled workmanship of the those who built the wooden church of Karavasari: “Take a good look at it. It doesn’t have even a single nail. Iron was not to be used, as on the old boats. Iron pierced the flesh of our Lord. It was built with joints.” And if not my grandfather’s family, these could have been cousins, Lyuba perhaps a daughter of the woman on the left in this photograph from my grandfather’s small hoard of personal belongings, a woman who resembles him so closely that I suspect she must have been his sister, left behind when he came first to Franklin Furnace and then to Alberta where my Canadian story begins.


So a book I picked up with some curiosity but not much expectation takes me to a place I am somehow a part of:

The first stars come out. Viktor has gone to close his dovecote. Lyuba invites us to come back tomorrow morning to drink some fresh goat’s milk, We climb slowly back up to the castle on a labyrinth of stairs. From the top, we look back down on the lights of Karavarai with all the characters of the story — the Turks, the Jews, the Poles, the merchants, the boatmen, and the horses drinking at the river. There’s also Lyuba, going back inside the house with her goats, and nearby a group of young people pitching their tent for the night on an emerald-green meadow next to the river. Still father, a horse grazing. They’re all moving inside the same story, written long ago.

redux: “Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms.”

Note: this was 4 years ago and this morning, re-reading, I was surprised to realize I was revising “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”,  an essay that is central to my Blue Portugal & Other Essays. I didn’t know then that the collection would be finished, would be published, and that a copy would sit on my desk to remind me of how the thinking and writing I do gradually accumulates until, voila, a book….

morning swim

Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This has a wonderful post this morning, a review of Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth. It’s a book I’d like to read, and will. I’ve been reading books about water lately, about swimming, about various kinds of immersion. Jessica Lee’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir was so beautiful and so brave that I began to plot ways of swimming in winter. Wait, I do swim in winter, though in a pool, not the lakes Jessica has found near Berlin, where she lives. I swim daily in Ruby Lake from June to late September and then it’s the Pender Harbour Aquatic Centre, where my children learned to swim more than 30 years ago, and where the lifeguards do their best to save my lane for me, the one closest to the big windows and on the side of the pool because otherwise I can’t keep straight.

I’ve been revising a long essay on rivers and the venous system, mostly because it keeps getting rejected and I return to it with a nervous eye, wondering what to do to make it something more attractive to readers. I loved writing the early drafts. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, not in prose, so I used both margins to justify different parts of the text. I wanted the typography to echo the text. I wanted the text to meander on the page as a river meanders through a landscape and our veins and arteries carry our blood through our bodies. (Writing this description, or justification, I realize how this might be the reason no one wants to publish it. It looks odd. It uses space in an unexpected way. But who wants to keep doing the same old, same old?)

Here’s a little of the essay, a section justified to the right margin (though some sections move back and forth between margins, as a swimmer moves through water):

8. Deep Venous drainage system

The fibular vein. Anterior tibial vein. Posterior tibial vein. The three become the popliteal vein at the knee; and then that vein enters the thigh, via a passageway called the adductor canal, as the femoral vein. These are the veins where the thrombosis formed, a clot poised like a temporary island, breaking free, travelling into my pulmonary system where it lodged as an embolism, threatening my heart.

My heart never knew it was threatened. My heart grew large with love that time, in anticipation of a third grandchild, surrounded by other family members, hearing their voices, sitting with them at the long table we’d eaten at for more than three decades. My heart, unaware, as I tried to catch my breath. It never knew it was threatened. It was filled with love, it was heavy with love.

And other minor veins drain into the femoral vein, like small creeks. The femoral vein graciously receives its tributaries as rivers receive theirs, the threads of mountain courses, of run-off, of bog-dark sweet creekwater, limestone, gritty, clear as mirror glass, dense with salmon, lively with mayflies and dragonflies catching fire, of rivulets, right-bank, left-bank, forked, streamlet, greater saphenous vein, which usually receives the external pudendal vein as well as the superficial epigastric vein, and the superficial circumflex iliac vein.

When I go for my swim at the local pool, I see the older women whose class is finishing just as I enter the water for my laps. They are thin, large, stooped, high-stepping, and lame. On their legs, the story of their lives thus far. Varicose veins, spider veins, venous insufficiency, superficial phlebitis, swellings and dark bruisings, lymphedema: some of them use walkers or canes to help them into and out of the water, to the hot-tub where they are helped down the stairs. But in the pool—sometimes I arrive early enough to see this—they raise their arms, they float, they are light as birds in the clear water while gentle music plays and the instructor leads their movements from the walkway at the edge. In the hot-tub after, their heads above the warm froth, they are beautiful, talking among themselves as the music continues and I swim my laps, listening to them.

…listen to your suppliants voice, come, and benignant in these rites rejoice;
Give plenteous Seasons, and sufficient wealth, and pour; in lasting streams, continued Health.

Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms. Join us, one of them says, smiling, using her cane to walk unsteadily to the change room. My own legs are uncertain rivers, uncertain streams, their courses changing, islands forming of my own blood, its platelets and fibrins turned semi-solid.

last year the Casablanca lilies…


…by the front door were filled with tree frogs. One morning, with my grandsons, I counted 6. This year, we’ve seen a few frogs here and there–one on a watering can, one by the kitchen window, a tiny one on the kale as we were cutting greens for a hortopita–

small frog

but there aren’t anywhere near the numbers of previous years. Yesterday, before dinner, Forrest went with his sons to look for snakes on the bluff over the old orchard. In years past, that area was always good for snakes. But they didn’t see a single one. I do see them in the vegetable garden but do I see as many as I always have? I don’t think so. We used to see toads. Not now. We haven’t done anything to spoil their habitat, not up here where we leave piles of rocks for snakes, grow dense vines around the house for both the cool they offer in the heat of summer and for the frogs. I have two water areas, one an old claw-footed bathtub, the other a half barrel, where the tree frogs can breed and where their tadpoles can feed on algae and duckweed. Maybe this is simply an off-year. I hope that’s true and that it’s not a sign of the future. Another sign, like the dying western red cedars, the diminished salmon runs. What kind of future would that be? I don’t want to know.

I have to say there are lots of bees. Lots of wasps. The Steller’s jays have returned for their daily seeds. Deer keep passing through, pausing on the edge of the grass to browse. When I swim in the mornings, dragonflies and swallows make their long loopy stitches over the surface of the lake. This summer will be added to the codex of our years, written in pollen, the resin from the Douglas firs, the silvery scribble of slugs passing over the patio, feathers, leaf miner trails in the columbines, tendrils of wisteria reaching up to the highest roof.

My curtains are rough white linen and they filter moonlight. Some evenings I still walk out in my cotton nightdress to pluck slugs from the lettuces, watch for deer who bring their fawns to eat rose canes escaping the fence. How many generations of deer, how many of bears lying in wait for the apples to ripen as they turn over stones on the path for the abundance of ants? Four, or seven, or thirty-two. And even the dogs, long dead, are racing in circles around the garden fence. One of them loved blackberries, one ate salal from the bushes along the driveway. In the dense woods a varied thrush adjusts its pitch, another answers from the understory. The robin nest is filled again with soft blue eggs. The weasel has yet to appear by the window, though the curtains are now open, the roses are blooming.
           –“Love Song”, included in Blue Portugal & Other Essays (University of Alberta Press, 2022)

ghosts in the woods

old ghost

We were driving out to Egmont so the visiting grandsons could play on the old school field (school itself no longer there, the one that welcomed children from kindergarten to grade 7) and I kept noticing the ghosts of ancient trees along the side of the road. Stop, I asked, and I crossed the narrow pavement to take a photograph. I’ve driven this road hundreds of times over the past 40+ years and yes, I’ve seen the trees but somehow this morning they spoke to me. What did they say? Ah, I’m still figuring it out.


The notches were sawn into the trees to support a springboard which would in turn support a logger. The springboards had a steel tip with a lip that gripped the notch. You can see the sawed notch for the springboard on the trunk and you can see the marks of hobnailed boots on the photograph of the springboard in my friend’s uncle’s “museum”. The notches are quite high up, partly because the tree grew on a slope, partly because of butt swell (look at how the trunk flares close to the ground and imagine cutting that with a two person saw. Less work to cut a little further up and in any case the wood in the flared area would have been wasted), and partly because the butt of a tree contains more resin than higher up and the resin mucked up the blades. So the trunks stand still, a reminder of older times and methods.

I’ve been thinking about the ancient trunks every since. The boys had lunch and they’re playing a game in which I heard them replaying their time on the Egmont field. It’s grey outside, a few raindrops falling from time to time. And I’m thinking and it seems to me that a man in the novel I’m writing set in a village very like Egmont might well have been intrigued by the trunks too. He’s not alive in the actual narrative time of the novel but he’s important. He left a house to the main character and her husband and in the house they find his paintings. I’ve been working out his palette and his style and I’ve even begun to describe some of his work. Now I suspect that a stash of paintings of the beautiful ghosts of the woods will be discovered too. Maybe like me he drove down Egmont Road and noticed the trunks and wondered. Maybe like me he knew they held stories that are fading every year and maybe he wanted to tell those stories as urgently as I want to. Maybe. We’ll see.

redux: a running brush

Note: from two years ago. I wondered then if there might be a way to stitch these entries into a whole and maybe I’m still wondering. Suggestions welcome.


I began this blog nine and a half years ago. I remember thinking at the time it was such a self-indulgent thing to do but I also remember how much I loved discovering that the things I was thinking about could be written down in a semi-public form and given a place in the (small) world of virtual space. (Of course I know that virtual space is enormous but literary-ish blogs? That reduces the field considerably.) I didn’t need to think of what I was writing as publishable or formal. It was hugely liberating and continues to be.

I write these posts when I feel I have something I want to share, or puzzle through, or call attention to in other ways. Over the years I’ve learned to embed videos, to edit (somewhat) photos, and even to change the template of my website (after complaints from readers who said the white text on black space was too difficult to read).

But what exactly are these entries? Some of them have found their way into essays I’ve written. They served as spring-boards, I guess you could say. Some of them are extracts from works-in-progress. Over nine and half years, I’ve written a lot. I remember being asked about a possible manuscript in 2015 and I thought how I’d really like to put together a book about the year I was 60: 2015-1016. So much happened that year. I went through all the entries and drew out a couple of strands, edited them lightly, and sent the manuscript off, along with another manuscript of essays. The publisher (Mother Tongue Publishing, to whom I am eternally grateful) chose the manuscript of essays that became Euclid’s Orchard. It turns out that another writer published a book that year about being 60 and although mine would have been the antithesis of his, maybe there’s not room for two.

So. I have all these entries, some of them small essays in themselves. Personal essays. Some of them are fragments. But in my mind, in the mind that draws me to sit at my desk to shape and write down my thinking, my dreams, my hopes, I intuit that these are all part of a whole. Today I was reading the new Harper’s and was intrigued by an essay by Kadijah Queen called “False Dawn”. It’s a series of brief passages and responses to them, all of them seeming to arise from the author’s experiences of living through the current pandemic. They are personal, often lyrical, and some of them find their way to others in a slightly circuitous fashion. The piece is called a zuihitsu, a term I’ve never heard before, but now that I know it, I find myself thinking that my blog posts fit this almost perfectly. It’s a Japanese essay form, meaning “a running brush”, and it’s a miscellany, a catch-all in a way, of loosely connected responses to the life and surroundings of the writer. Think of Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. I love the sense that there is no premeditated structure. If you’ve been reading my blog for any time at all, you’ve figured out that I don’t plan. I find my way through. I feel my way. To me this has always been the way I’ve worked but now that I’m aging and now that the publishing climate is so fierce about structure and outlines and a crisp narrative arc, I’ve been feeling kind of isolated. I write the way I write in order to find things out, to circle them, to praise them, to tease out their meanings, and I don’t expect I’ll change. So to discover a form that is already (essentially) the one I use almost daily is a gift. I may try to adapt some of the work I’ve written to echo the zuihitsu I’ve read today — not the works themselves but the open fragmentary form. Or maybe I won’t. But it’s lovely to know that I’m not alone in what I do.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about, also Japanese, is the art of kintsugi, of repairing ceramics with tree-sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold. The word means (I think) precious scars. The idea of keeping something alive, something beautiful and cherished, something practical, is hugely attractive to me. I don’t make ceramics but I do use a version of this (in a way) with quilts. The other night a friend of my son’s came for dinner with us. We were talking under the vines and she brought up kintsugi, saying in a way she felt it was how she wanted to approach some memoir writing she hoped to do. Oh, yes, I told her. It’s a perfect way to think about the broken fragments of our lives, made stronger and even more beautiful by the gold-dusted repairs.

So I write my small essays, I hope for a way to seam them together in their cracked and broken utility. I think of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:

There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

I think of the cracks in my own skeleture, the tailbone fractured on an icy sidewalk in Edmonton, the rib cracked when I fell on a post one winter day a decade ago, my pelvis broken at the pubis when my horse fell on me 50 years ago, the footbone broken in early June when I slammed it against an open cupboard door. Think of the damage within my own body, seamed with gold, the light seeping in. Think of the running brush easing each fragment into something lovely and meaningful. Yes, repetitions, yes, the seasons, the wind, the births and deaths, the passing of time. And the constants, the moon I look out at each night from my bed in the woods between two lakes, the stars in their own loneliness.

At any time and in any place I find moonlight very moving.

Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book

redux: a set of quotidian lines

(Note: this is from two years ago. And yesterday, while picking kale (for a green pie) with one Ottawa grandson, we saw the prettiest and tiniest tree frog on a leaf of kale, overhung with leeks. So the green of kale, of tree frogs, of a younger generation growing in sunlight.)

small frog

1. On our clothesline, the linen bedcover sent to John’s mother from her mother after his family had emigrated to Canada from England in 1953. The bedcover is exactly the right weight for these warm August evenings. I don’t believe his grandmother made the cloth. It’s very large, hemstitched, and is banded with soft pink. But she did embroider the wreath of roses in its centre. When I met her in 1979, she was blind and quite blunt. She prided herself on her Yorkshire roots and I knew she didn’t much like me. To be fair? I didn’t much like her. Speaking bluntly meant she offered opinions on everything and it didn’t make for interesting conversation. But in the years since she died, I’ve grown to respect her. We have many of her tablecloths, each more beautiful than the last, and I understand something of how she tried to keep the lines of family communication open between England and Canada in the days before easy telephone calls and emails. She was not only alone but lonely. She’d moved from her home in Sheffield after her husband died to the Suffolk town of Felixstowe, which was where I met her when John and I visited her for a few days before a trip to Paris. She’d work for months stitching the cloths she’d send as gifts, the one vivid with spring and early summer flowers—daffodils, primula, poppies, violets; and the cream linen one with brown fanciful designs done in the most elegant stitches. There was the one that never arrived, the one she worked on for a whole year, her own design, picking up elements of the family’s blue willow china, packing it for Christmas and mailing it in plenty of time. Each time she wrote a letter to her daughter, she asked if it had arrived yet and it never did. I can only imagine it on the table of someone who received it by chance or error and I hope they love it as much as I would have. We have that china now and I can only imagine our plates on her blue cloth, pagodas and birds and lovers on a bridge between one time and another.

linen roses

2. From a clump of dots inside jelly, turning to commas, then tadpoles, every year the emergence of Pseudacris regilla delights me. Many years the frogs lay their eggs in a claw-footed bathtub I keep as a little pond by the compost. This year I didn’t see any eggs among the flag irises, the marsh marigolds, scouring rush, and sedges growing in pots in the tub. We always have tree frogs around so I know they must be breeding nearby but when my grandsons were here from Ottawa, we saw 2, then 3, then 6 tiny frogs on leaves on the small deck by the front door. They are like jewels, the green of Oriental jade, inscribed with lines of bronze and gold, their bellies opal pink. This is the first year we’ve noticed them deep in the throats of the lilies growing in pots on the front deck and even when the flowers finish, the frogs like to perch on the fallen petals. Maybe the lilies attract tiny insects. Maybe the frogs are just suckers for the rich perfume of the Casablanca lilies. I made a little video of the frog doing exercises that looked suspiciously like yoga but for some reason I can’t embed it here. But imagine this one (the size of an almond) stretching first one leg, then another, and lifting its face up to the sky.


3. Strings holding tomato vines ripening in the sun, water from last night’s thunder storm falling in fast streams down the blue roof and into the water barrels, the lightning I saw at midnight, stitching sky to trees, and the six syllables of the great horned owl’s call in the small hours, the last one a grace note, stretching out and out and out until I was asleep again.

4. A hundred and two years ago my grandmother did her laundry in a shack on the south side of the Red Deer River. She had just given birth to a baby who would be dead by the following spring. In two months her husband and brother would also be dead. When I hang out the cloth made by my husband’s grandmother and when I bring it in later today to smooth over my bed, I will think of her washing her family’s clothes in water lugged up from the river, her  8 remaining children helping, or not, and how what we do is part of a long continuing line. We push the door open with our hip, balancing the basket on the other hip, and we do what we can to keep things clean, to make use of sunlight and wind, and to love each other as much as we can.

There were doors, small openings. The slag heaps where people brought home enough coal to heat their shacks. Coal seams ran under some of the houses and people could hear the picks below ground as they hung out laundry, fed their chickens. A door opens, someone is sweeping an earth floor, sweeping the crumbs out to the chickens, unpegging the sheets and diapers from the line. A few mended shirts are draped over bushes, their empty sleeves spread wide.

a dark path, with voices

dark path

Recently we rearranged the paintings and other pieces of art in our house and we decided it was time to hang A Dark Path, the quilt I made in tandem with an essay of the same name, included in Blue Portugal & Other Essays. The man who was the baby lying on a blanket while I made the path now overgrown with grass, more than 40 summers ago, is here again, with his young sons, and they are outside, looking for a place to make a fort with their grandfather’s leftover lumber. How their voices remind me of earlier voices!

A path of rocks, some of them split open with a young woman’s strength, has long since returned to earth, hidden under decades of grass and moss, perhaps faintly detected by bare toes on a summer morning. And the trail from childhood to lives in the beautiful damaged world—knitted back together by salal, bramble, shaded by cedars, faint voices of those children heard when the light is right, the heart ready to hear them. A path down a mountain with an injured guide, no poet but a dog gone to memory. Scraps of fabric hoarded for years, held to the window, cut into approximations of rectangles, and pieced, waiting for me to join the seams together to make a whole. Dark blues, greys, silks from India embroidered with flowers and sequined, a small length of indigo printed with saffron moons. Unfold yourself. Unfold the path made of pieced fragments, broken geometries.

“M. Varro assures us that beans are very good for the voice.”


When I swam in mist this morning, the water felt sweet, soft. Turning, turning, my body at home in the deep quiet lake, I wanted to stay forever. There was no one on the sand, no one bringing loads of gear for a day at the beach. It felt like the place I have known and loved for more than 40 years. In the spring of our first year together, John brought me here, set up a small pup tent on a grassy area under trees. We slept to the sound of loons, the scent of warm canvas. On the sand this morning, raccoon tracks. A single feather.

Returning home, I went out to pick beans in a light rain. We’ll eat them tonight, steamed briefly and dressed with walnut oil, some tarragon. We’ll eat pesto made with basil from the pots on the upper deck and a whole head of this year’s garlic, drying in the woodshed. When the Edmonton grandchildren were here, we had pasta with pesto to celebrate a birthday (the birthday girl’s choice) and then when their parents went to Powell River for a few days on their own, I asked the children what they’d like for dinner. Could we have that pesto again, they wondered. They helped me cut enough basil and chose pappardelle to spoon the green sauce over. They each ate two bowls of it, followed by Grandpa’s raspberries. More grandchildren are coming on Friday and these ones will have their own requests. I saved this year’s fig and apple prunings for the barbecue and who knows what we’ll cook on the fragrant coals.

Late in the night I came to my desk and found myself reading Pliny. As many times as I’ve read The Natural History, I always discover more. (The older I get, the more I feel like him — opinionated, a little cranky, dismissive.) I wondered what he had to say about beans and here he is, in full mettle.

Beans, too, furnish us with some remedies. Parched whole, and thrown hot into strong vinegar, they are a cure for grip- ings of the bowels. Bruised, and boiled with garlic, they are taken with the daily food for inveterate coughs, and for suppurations of the chest. Chewed by a person fasting, they are applied topically to ripen boils, or to disperse them; and, boiled in wine, they are employed for swellings of the testes and diseases of the genitals. Bean-meal, boiled in vinegar, ripens tumours and breaks them, and heals contusions and burns. M. Varro assures us that beans are very good for the voice. The ashes of bean stalks and shells, with stale hogs’- lard, are good for sciatica and inveterate pains of the sinews. The husks, too, boiled down, by themselves, to one-third, arrest looseness of the bowels.
          –(translated by John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.)

Thank goodness that beans taste so good because given this information, who would eat them for simple pleasure, tossed with walnut oil, a grinding of pepper, a snipping of tarragon and chives?

“…the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek”

back in the river

                                                                 the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek,

Coldwater, and the Kispiox where my children waded on a hot day in July, the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po (a rock, with an inscription, “Qui nasce il Po”, near Pian del Re, then the long journey to its fossil delta) and Arno (where I stood on another bridge and wished I could afford soft gloves) and the sweet Hoh, Queets, and Ozette where I camped as a young woman, the Snake, the Escalante and Kanab, the Lost and the Warm, and the Coeur d’Alene,

the Kern, the Mad, Klamath, and Rowdy Creek,

the Sooke, the Elk,

and the one I walk to season after season, near my home, where coho salmon swim in by starlight

and mergansers wait to feed on their eggs.

Note: this is an extract from “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, included in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, available from any bookseller.