a small dark presence


Yesterday, while rain stuttered on our metal roof, I was reading in the living room. It was mid-afternoon, the light was grey (I’d turned on a small lamp behind me), and the house was quiet. But I thought I saw quick movement. Wings? My impression was that something was flying just beyond the end of the couch where I was lying with my New Yorker, something small and dark. My immediate fear was my retinas. A year ago I fell on ice in Edmonton and cracked my coccyx. It hurt. But because we were away from home, spending time with our family, I took heavy pain-killers and did all the stuff we’d planned to do. It was a lovely time and when I started to experience what I know now were entoptic phenomena (visual effects within the eye), I really thought they were part of everything I was doing: children’s theatre, riding a sleigh pulled by horses through the snowy streets of Strathcona, walking under trees silver with ice.

It wasn’t until three days later that the silver light began to fall to the right of my face, long beautiful streams of it. Mostly in a dark room (we were watching an abbreviated performance of the Nutcracker with our grandchildren), but then at other times, in the bedroom when I was resting with the blinds closed to the bright snow. I also began to see small nests of fine twigs or hairs in my right eye, passing by. None of this was painful. — from “The Blue Etymologies

We went to the Emergency department at Royal Alexandra Hospital and were referred to a resident ophthalmologist who just happened to be working upstairs at the Alberta Eye Institute and she conducted many tests and procedures. She determined that I had a new hole in one of my retinas and advised me to stay in Edmonton for treatment. We were due to return home the next morning and she agreed that I could leave but that I had to see a specialist as soon as I arrived back on the Coast. I did and he confirmed the tear in my retina, repairing it immediately. A follow-up appointment a few weeks later revealed a second tear, which was also repaired, The impact of the fall had begun the process of retinal detachment and so I was monitored for some time during the winter and early spring. It was really interesting to learn about what the eye perceives within itself and more interesting to remember the experience of seeing extraordinary blue sky, filled with tumbling clouds, and a sere desert, cross-hatched with red crevasses as the ophthalmology resident shone lights into the backs of my eyes.

On a snowy evening in Edmonton, I sat in a chair high above the city glittering below, and saw images so beautiful that I know why people have sought them since they first ate datura or drank fermented honey and ingested mushrooms so toxic they could not have lived long afterwards. In dark caves they applied ochre, charcoal, and ground calcite to show light falling from the faces of horses and spiral patterns that led them to a dizzy apprehension of time and starlight. Following the spiral, they went to the heart of the mystery. It was never ours. It was always ours. — from “The Blue Etymologies”

But yesterday? Fluttering wings? A small dark presence? I tried to forget about it, and mostly I did. The movement stopped and I kept reading. An hour or so later, I was in the kitchen, sewing in the big rocking chair by the fire, and the cat was on a chair beside me, sleeping. He suddenly woke, jumped down, and raced over to John’s shoes. Something fluttered and the cat backed away. I went to investigate and was surprised to see a small bat in John’s shoe. Between John and I, the shoe was moved outside and the bat gently shaken out. It sat in the rain. What to do? Using two long flat pieces of cedar kindling (our old roof shakes), John picked the bat up and placed it on a flower pot on a herb trolley under the eaves where it would at least be dry. In summer the bats often roost in the little crevices between the cedar fascia boards and the soffits so if this bat was one who knew our house, maybe it would tuck itself back into the crevice.

This morning? It’s hanging off a flower pot. It seems to be sleeping. It’s a strange time of year to see a bat but it’s mild outside and there are still insects around. My instinct is not to interfere but to let it find its own way to where it needs to go. How did it get in the house? Maybe the cat brought it in. But where did he find it? Maybe it fell from its roosting place. I know it can fly because I realize now, to my relief, that the fluttering I saw as I read on the couch was a bat and not my retinas trying to detach.


Little update: the bat was moving around on the flower pot and we didn’t want a weasel to find it. So John used this strainer (and an oven mitt) to encourage the little bat to enter the safety of the crevices between fascia and soffits where bats often lurk on summer days. Maybe they hibernate there too…

redux: a chest, unlocked

Note: this post, from two Novembers ago, thinks about a wooden chest and my mother. It thinks about material evidence. There’s a passage from my book of essays, Euclid’s Orchard. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, I’d be happy to supply one as part of a sort of Christmas sale. More info here.


a chest, unlocked



I still have the carved chest. For years my mother stored all her sweaters in it, and they had the distinctive smell of camphorwood. There was a shallow inner box that sat on a ridge around the top. She kept small containers with various pieces of jewellery on the shelf, and gloves. I keep my sweaters in the chest, and the linen tablecloths that have come from John’s mother (embroidered with brilliant flowers by his grandmother in Suffolk),as well as several from the Goodwill on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg, bought while I killed time between readings on a book tour in 2001. I keep my pashminas there too, a kaleidoscope of them, many of them gifts from my children. Everything that comes from the chest carries the smell of my childhood, sharp and arboreal. — from “Tokens”, Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

Sometimes the scent is all it takes and there I am, back in my mother’s bedroom, watching her dab on a tiny drop of My Sin as she got ready to go out with my father. I would have been 6 or 7, and the chest was new, brought home by my father from a long naval trip to the Far East. (I wrote about the trip and the chest in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard.) I’ve been tidying my study, trying to find room for all the papers I prepared for an anticipated visit from librarians interested in acquiring my archive, then delayed. So the papers are organized in boxes and laundry baskets and there’s nowhere else to store them. Given my magpie nature and my tendency to just pile stuff up (“I’ll deal with it later.”), it was hard to find my way to my desk. I have the habit of clearing my desk and as much of the study as I can when I’m trying to find my way into regular writing again and so this weekend I cleared and dusted and moved stuff around. It’s hard to actually get rid of any of it. The big rocks from various riverbeds and beaches. The spruce and pine cones from trees on several continents, including a tree in front of my grandmother’s house in Horni Lomna, in the Czech Republic. My beloved dog Lily’s pelvis! A small level made by John’s paternal grandfather of oak and brass for a tool box he’d put together for John’s father when the family emigrated to Canada in 1953. Worry dolls. Books, books, books. A scanner I was keeping even though I couldn’t download drivers for my current computer but then yesterday, on a whim, I tried again, and voila!

I found room for a small set of bookshelves I built in grade 12 and put all my field-guides and plant books and bird books and that meant moving the chest to another location. I polished it with wood-cleaner and then opened it. Her scent, in a way; at least, her scent in the years she wore Pringle sweaters and gloves stored in the chest, and very occasionally dabbed on My Sin (though the bottle is 3/4 full so she couldn’t have used it very often). At the bottom of the chest was a bag with fabric in it.two silks

The plain one is actually a very vivid cherry raw silk from Italy, though I bought it in Ottawa, from Woven Streams (actually in Gatineau; I crossed the river to find the shop). The other fabric is Atlas ikat silk brought as a gift by my brother when he worked in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The silk is made from the silk produced by Atlas moths, huge and beautiful creatures; and the fabric is used to make clothing for Uyghur women. I look at these two lengths and imagine something really luxurious—I don’t know, an opera cloak? A rustling skirt? But I can’t sew well enough for anything so lovely and the fabric sits in the chest where it smells of camphorwood and Pringle sweaters and maybe just faintly of My Sin.

Years ago, I read Penelope Lively’s wonderful memoir, A House Unlocked, about her family’s ancestral home in Somerset and thought what a good way to record a family’s history: through its domestic context, its gardens, its implements. For my parents’ home, this would have meant the Melmac plates, the china vase in the shape of a bible with a homily on it, a plaster-of-paris picture of a lighthouse, a lamp on the television in the shape of two ducks flying with a candy dish as its base. We were not a grand family. And after my parents died, I found silver-plated cutlery, including very beautiful salad servers still in their original package, and linen napkins, all wedding gifts, never ever used but saved for an occasion that didn’t happen. What would that have been, I wonder? I use silver for family meals and the linen napkins that are now stained a little but I think of that as a patina, part of the experience and pleasure of use.

On each recovery of Golsoncott, each return to the place now safely stashed in the mind, intact and inviolate, I review the familiar landscape of the house. A left turn out of the vestibule, past the gong stand—the cloakroom door now facing me and, behind that, the red-tiled floor, the wall of pegs slung with old raincoats, riding macs, gardening aprons, sou’westers, my aunt’s hunting bowlers, the rack of walking sticks, the dog leads, everything tinged pink with Somerset earth…Here in the dining room my grandmother played Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky 78s that clicked and clumped from within her adventurous purchase of a radiogram. Here Rachel worked at wood engravings at the fireside. Here, each evening, I laid the table for dinner, abiding by an inexorable formula—the correct selection of implements and impedimenta from the sideboard and the silver cupboard. — from A House Unlocked

I thought of my childhood as without ceremony and ritual (there was no “inexorable formula” for setting the table with the Melmac plates and the glasses—former Cheez Whiz jars, printed with pheasants and ducks), yet when I look at the camphorwood chest, I remember the dusky scented room with my mother stepping into her high-heeled shoes, draping a chiffon scarf around her neck before reaching for her muskrat fur jacket. I remember tracing my fingers across the surface of the chest, trying to read the story of the two men lifting their end of a sedan chair with a pagoda roof (in the photo above you can’t see the man at the back, holding up his end), the occupant just visible through a small opening. I imagined I was that occupant, perhaps being carried to the mountains, the scent of camphorwood heady in the air.

“…stories belong on maps too…”

under the bridge

This morning I’m working on the (final) edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out from Palimpsest Press in spring. It’s about several things, maybe even many, but at its heart is a young woman searching for the terroir of books she has loved: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval; Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (and the rumour of Deep Hollow Creek, because my novella is set in the 1970s and DHC wasn’t published until 1992, though it was written before The Double Hook…). The young woman, who is Izzy, drives up the Fraser Canyon and over to Lac LeJeune and all the way to Dog Creek, and she marks a map—this is before gps, before Google—with textual notes. She is making a feminine (even feminist) cartography, though she wouldn’t have phrased it that way.

By association, stories belong on maps too, even the ones that were too quiet to be heard or else refuted the popular narratives. Stories have their own geography and need a scale bar that allows them to express location, relationships, emotions, weather effects on riverbanks, and the erosion of delicate landforms. Or they have their own gender and no one understands the legend.

When I was writing this novella, I didn’t think it would be published. Yet it will be, and I am so grateful. But more than that, I’m grateful to the women who wrote books that helped me to realize that our landscape has been lovingly commemorated by women who aren’t exactly household names in the great literary canon. I had the opportunity this time last year to remember one of them as part of CBC Radio’s The Backlist and with The Weight of the Heart, I have another opportunity to showcase their books.

The other week, on a little road trip, John and I stopped at Lytton to look at the Thompson River, greeny blue and somehow lithe, entering the brown Fraser River. The rabbitbrush had lost its yellow and gone to seed, sumac along the riverbank was brilliant red, and you could hear the thin voices of ospreys fishing. Always always always.

think of this…

the book table

…as a Christmas book table, at a craft faire, maybe, when you are looking for gift ideas. You stop, you look at the titles, and you think, Yes, why don’t I give books this year? Here at High Ground, we have some extra copies of some of our books and are offering them for sale, any 3 for $45. (Just the ones pictured; we don’t have many copies of other titles.) Postage will be included for mailing in Canada but elsewhere, we’ll mail them at cost. You can find more information about my titles by visiting my book page. John’s two books are poetry collections: crawlspace was published in 2011 and was the winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize; and Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) was published in 2015. Oh, and if you’re interested, ask me about Patrin. I might have a few copies of that too.

redux: “on a shore wind I drifted out”

Note: I find the world too much these days. I find what I’ve done in it, for it, insufficient. I’m burrowed away in my kitchen, quilting, and waiting for bread dough to rise. But a few minutes ago, I saw this little sculpture from Nunavut and remembered I’d written about it. In a similar mood, as it turns out. On this same day, 3 years ago.


After a run of stormy days, I see blue sky to the south, and pink light filtering through the Douglas firs to the east of the house. And just now, doing something else, I saw this little sculpture, a gift from someone long dead. It’s from Nunavut, created out of caribou antler, and it’s on a low table by a window. How many times I pass it in a day, never looking. But this morning I looked and saw the perseverance, the hard work, and (yes) the joy of this hunter in wild seas.

antler carving.jpg

So today I will remember this moment, seeing the small kayak, the whales, no matter what else is going on in the world — and that election just south of us does feel like the world, for the way it fills the newspapers, the airwaves, our conversations, our every waking moment, whether we want it to or not.

And I think over again
My small adventures
When from a shore wind I drifted out
In my kayak
And I thought I was in danger.

My fears,
Those small ones
That I thought so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing.
To live and see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns,
And the light that fills the world.

–Song from the Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo), The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, compiled by Knud Rasmussen

“Good evening, stranger…”

kite, in progress

Last night we began to read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. We’ve been meaning to read together for awhile now, after last winter’s experience of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the odes of John Keats. I was sort of pushing for the Odyssey but John was resistant. Maybe nothing quite so classical this time around, he suggested. But I brought out this beautiful edition, purchased (in part) with my gift certificate from the Galiano Island Literary Festival two years ago, and we simply began. It reads so well. “Tell me about a complicated man.” What an opening. Yes, tell me. I’m going to resist the urge to compare. My beloved Fitzgerald translation lives on my desk, coming apart at the spine, fringed with stickie notes, a source of both solace and inspiration for at least 45 years. I paid $2.04 for it in the University of Victoria bookstore in the fall of 1973. I’ve read other translations but this one has always felt like Homer to me. I have to say that I do love the cadences of this Wilson version, though, and look forward to tonight.

With that, she tied her sandals on her feet,
the marvelous golden sandals that she wears
to travel sea and land, as fast as wind.

I might try a little exercise as we go along, using my Loeb Odyssey and my battered Goodwin Greek Grammar. I know there are more modern ways to immerse yourself in languages but I like the slow work of an old grammar and scraps of paper.

                                                            “Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”

Imagine if we could still open a door to a stranger, a woman in beautiful sandals, and offer her a meal, not knowing that she is a goddess. Imagine.

redux: the decades

Note: This week I need to come up with an image to cut into lino for this year’s High Ground Christmas card. I’m looking around and trying to see what might make a journey from actual thing to image, that won’t be too difficult for my limited skills with the tools. Last year it was this wren; unfortunately its beak became slightly truncated when the lino broke away at the very tip. This year? Who knows? A house (I did one many years ago but maybe it’s time to revisit?), a leaf, an elk posing as a reindeer?



I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.

I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.

Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.

How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.

Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,

So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start