“Was it here?”

drumheller 1912

from a work-in-progress:

Early on the morning we are to leave Drumheller, I open the door of the little house we are staying in. My grandchildren are playing with puzzles, their parents and my husband are making breakfast. I walk to the river, just a block or two away. The trail is crisp with frost and the willows hang over quiet eddies of the dark water. Was it here? One map suggests it was. Was this where Joseph Klus dug his house into the bank, laid his blankets on a cot, listened for rain? Is this were he first felt the chill, the congestion in his lungs, shivered until he was moved to his sister’s house where he died among the children, one of them an infant? Did anyone bring soup or tubs of water for washing his body? Two days later, Joseph Yopek also died, in Anna’s care.

Was it here or was it across the river? Magpies watch me walking. There’s a hotel I’ve seen in early photographs and someone told me the squatters’ camp was in that area. Our little house looks out on the hotel. Was it here, was it here? Everyone is nice to me but I know they don’t understand my urgent need to determine where my grandmother lived, where she lost first one, then a second, and finally a third family member in a short period of time. Baby Myrtle died of whooping cough with the underlying condition of malnutrition. I can’t imagine my grandmother took to her bed, not with 9 children, but did her milk dry up? Was there no money to supplement the infant’s diet?

Was it here, where the children were sent for water, were hushed while both Josephs coughed themselves to death? Was it here the coal smoke rose from their chimney, carrying the souls to heaven?

monsoon pie

monsoon pie1

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m always making hortopita or green pie, a version of spanakopita, that Greek pastry with spinach and cheese filling. My pie uses wild and cultivated greens. I remember this pie when I lived on Crete in the mid-1970s. I didn’t eat meat in those years so I was grateful for something so delicious and nutritious. The mother of the man I loved used to gather greens for the pie she made for his restaurant and I loved watching her sort them before cooking them. She was keeping an eye out for snails and other critters that wouldn’t have been welcome on the plates of thsoe who ate in her son’s establishment.

We’ve had a very wet June thus far. The day before yesterday, before dinner, there was the most torrential rain I think I’ve ever experienced on this coast. (The one that caught us in St. John’s a few years ago as we walked from our B&B to The Rooms rivalled it but—could this be true?—it came at us sideways so our umbrella made no difference.) When I went out for greens for my pie, I was astonished at the growth in the garden. This, despite the slugs. I cut a huge bowl of kale, dandelion leaves, buckhorn plantain, chicory, and chickweed (there’s a clump growing around a calamondin orange that I never pull out because it makes such a good addition to the pie). The chives are more like scallions this year, big and healthy. And the curly parsley is heading towards flowering so I want to use as much of it as possible.

Tonight, one of my favourite suppers: this monsoon pie with dollops of yoghourt green with dill; leftover tabbouli from last night (that parsley…); and roasted carrot salad with garlic and mint. A few glasses of wine and we’ll think we’re lounging by the Mediterranean, not huddled by our woodstove when the rain starts again. In her wonderful book, Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray provides all sorts of information on wild foods and their history. I love this old Carrarese saying: Chi vo far ‘na bona zena i magn’un erb ‘d’tut la mena: Who wants to eat a good supper should eat a weed of every kind.

monsoon pie2

“I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—”

first star

The rains this month are monsoons. Yesterday, this morning — torrential, so loud on our metal roof that we can’t hear ourselves think. And what would I think about anyway? These days I am heavy with weather, heavy with solitude. I don’t mean that in a negative way particularly. In the past 3 months, I have found my way into interesting history, part of it my own family history, and part of it the wider complexity of how a country treats those it has encouraged to come with promises of land and citizenship and how it fails them. I use the present tense though I am looking at records dating back a century. I use the present tense because I am writing about how individuals navigate, or don’t, the conditions of a pandemic. I feel the solitude my grandmother must have felt as her husband died, then her brother, then her youngest child, still an infant, isolated by her lack of English and her poverty. I am writing that moment and I am in it.

The rain has meant I’ve put some things aside for better weather. I have a basket of fabric prepared for my dye vat but I need a run of good days for that work. Last weekend I woke with an urgent need to make something. I’ve experienced this feeling since my childhood. I remember rushing to the basement where there were scraps of wood and old tobacco tins of nails and trying, trying to think of how to do something with them. Now I rush to the trunk of fabric in our guestroom and the big basket of indigo-dyed sheets and scraps left from a previous vat. I pull out cottons, remnants of other projects, pile them onto the bed, and wait. Sometimes I see relationships. Possibilities. Sometimes it’s something in my own experience I want to explore. I made a quilt and an essay simultaneously last year. I called both “A Dark Path”. I used the fabric as a way to make a physical path to take me through the process of fracturing both my pelvis 50 years ago and my coccyx in late November of 2018.

I woke in the early hours last Saturday morning just in time to see the Strawberry Moon passing my bedroom window, followed by a single star in the dark firs. Last Friday, I’d gone to the ophthalmologist in order to have my eyes checked. When I fractured my coccyx, the impact of falling on ice resulted in some retinal damage. My appointment last Friday was thorough. A technician took images of my inner eyes and when the ophthalmologist met with me a few minutes later, the images were on his computer screen. Here, and here, and here, he pointed. These tears have healed so well! I looked at my eyes, the little scars like buttons, and then he showed me the healthy retinal veins and arteries scribbled over the surfaces. When I stepped back, the images were like planets, heavenly bodies on the screen in the bright room. I held my eyes briefly against the palms of my hands. When I saw the Strawberry Moon passing the window, its surface could have been my eyes, the retinas with their single layer of pigment cells a soft orangey-pink.

Earlier in the week, I realized what I am missing during these days of rain and the nights with more of it, apart from that single night when I saw the moon, are stars. In winter and spring, the stars were spectacular. Some nights when I got up to pee, I’d see planets too, huge in the dark sky. On Tuesday I sketched a plan for a star quilt. I found a length of cotton bought cheaply as the end of a bolt a few years ago and cut out squares from that for the bodies of the stars. I cut scraps of light indigo-dyed cotton for the background of each star. Once I’ve pieced the star blocks, I’ll have to figure out sashing. Deep blue would be good but maybe instead some saffron yellow. I don’t know yet. So much depends on light and mood. I have a dyed sheet to use for the back of the quilt, its edges quite light but a panel of deep indigo down the centre, lighter scribbles where I’d tied it with hemp twine before dipping it in the dye.

It was easier for me to find my way through this fraught and damaged time a month or so ago when the nights were clear and the days bright. Only two weeks ago we were swimming. The dawn chorus was loud and rich. In the rain it’s hard to hear anything but its steady drumming on the blue roof, the splash of it falling from the downspouts. If I want stars, I’m learning I’ll have to make them myself.

I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—
I felt the Columns close—
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—
I touched the Universe—

–Emily Dickinson, 378


“Like the symbol for infinity.”

In other Junes, we’ve taken road trips, driving through our favourite landscapes. Windows open, music, stops to look at wildflowers. I feel restless this morning, remembering, but somehow I don’t feel brave enough to leave home. Not yet.

Looking back, I remember the Bridesville-Rock Creek road, how we turned off Highway 3 in 2013 on our way to Grand Forks and meandered through soft grasslands, sweet-scented pines, bluebirds on the fenceposts, and everywhere sticky geranium, upland larkspur, old man’s whiskers. We stopped to watch yellow-headed blackbirds in a small marsh and when this ranch appeared in the distance, I lost my heart.

In my new novella, The Weight of the Heart, the main character encounters a couple who have a ranch near Lac Le Jeune. I had in mind a particular place, though in my imagination it’s further from the road than it is in real life. This part of it is what I remember very vividly:

jocko creek horses

And in my book? I think there’s an intimation that it doesn’t really exist, that perhaps Izzy dreamed it:

He turned his truck and went up over the hill and I followed, followed the road Maggie must have driven with Joey or the Gunnarsons. There were pines, more of the bull pines in the distance, and a shimmer of lakes just off the road. A few weather-beaten cabins back in the trees, some of them pole frames and shingles returning to earth as moss and needle duff. The very cabins were as trees in the forest. I followed, past the Jocko Creek Ranch, which surely Ethel Wilson would have known from her trips to Lac Le Jeune. And just beyond, the Two-Bit Ranch, where Pete and Alice raised cattle and Appaloosas. Their sign, marked with their brand, two circles, side by side, overlapping slightly, like the symbol for infinity, hung between two posts over the gate, which was anchored on either side by wooden wagon wheels.

Like the symbol for infinity. This morning, that’s how these places feel to me. I haven’t been back to the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road since the serious fires of 2015 and 2017. If we could pack the car today and head out, Emmylou Harris on the stereo, is that where I’d want to go? Maybe not. I do know we’ve talked about our favourite stretch of Highway 99, between Lillooet and Pavilion, stopping at the Fountain Flat store to fill our coffee mugs, and stopping along the shoulder of the road to look down at the Fraser River below.

above the fraser

Instead, I’ll prepare copies of my book to send to my children and a few far-flung friends and put a few of the keepsakes John printed into envelopes for others who’ve bought The Weight of the Heart. (If you’ve bought a copy, let me know and I’ll send you a keepsake!) In other Junes, we’ve taken road trips. This year we shelter in place, our memories vivid with rivers, wildflowers on the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road, and the sound of yellow-headed blackbirds on a small hidden marsh. Like the symbol for infinity, they too are anchored, turning a little in the wind.

Sunday morning

drumheller 1920

This morning I’m in Drumheller in 1918. Really? Actually I’m at my desk on the Sechelt Peninsula reading old newspapers and other documents as I trace my family’s small history in the badlands of Alberta in the early years of the 20th century. But reading the newspapers of October, 1918 is haunting. The small city was experiencing the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic and I’ve gone through lists of the dead. Many men in their 30s and 40, miners, including my grandmother’s first husband and her brother, whose lungs were no doubt already compromised. Some children. I was surprised at the designation “Coloured” for some of the victims. Then I remembered ads in the papers for hotels claiming “All white help employed.” The sick were cared for in the school, the morgue was in the Miner’s Hall.

When I look at this photograph, taken in 1920, I have questions. There was a squatters’ camp from at least 1912 until spring of 1918, on the west side of town. After the pandemic, the modern one, I’ll be able to look at a map of the survey done to divide the camp into lots to sell at auction in November, 1917. My grandmother lived in the camp, as did her brother. I’ve recently learned that the reason they didn’t buy the lots where their houses were located is this:

Any person who was not, at the commencement of the present war, and who has not since continued to be a British subject, or a subject or a citizen of a country which is an ally of his Majesty in the present war, or a subject of a neutral country, is prohibited from purchasing any of of these lands under penalty of having the sales cancelled and the payments made thereon forfeited.

Squatters were given until June of 1918 to move their houses and other buildings. As late as 1925 there were complaints of “eye sores” still on the unsold lots. After her first husband died, followed by her brother, and the child she gave birth to in July, 1917, my grandmother married my grandfather in 1919. They were living on the other side of the river, in the shadow of the hills you can see in the photograph, in 1921.

I’ve written about this before. I wrote a long essay after a trip to Drumheller last April. But it was messy and didn’t manage to do what I’d hoped it would do. I’ve taken it apart and am stitching something new, something straddling the river like a bridge. I read old newspapers on my screen, I look at the photographs, and I try to find the small door that will open into the lives of people so far away in history but present in my own body.

“the long blue mornings at the dawn of the world”

This morning I went down to Sechelt for an ophthalmologist appointment. In late November of 2018 I fell on ice in Edmonton, fractured my tailbone, and (although I didn’t know until a few days later) the impact of the fall began the process of retinal detachment. I had emergency laser surgery as soon as we arrived home and then I had it again two weeks later because my retinas just wanted to tear away from the back wall of my eyes. Regular visits to the ophthalmologist were the theme of winter, 2019, each time the doctor peering into my eyes through lenses, taking photographs that looked like planets. Today was a follow-up and I’m so relieved that I have no further issues. You think you are strong and healthy and mostly you are but then your vision is threatened and you lie in your bed at night and hold your hands gently over your eyes, apologizing to them for taking them for granted.

After the visit, I felt light as air and I walked over to Talewind Books because Bev Shaw called the other day to say my new book had arrived and she had a stack of copies to be inscribed to various people. I say “various” so casually but honestly? They are the best people. They request my books, they buy copies as gifts, they invite me to their book groups, and in doing so they help to support Bev—her business stayed open, in a safe and low-key way, during the first part of the pandemic and I’m more grateful than I say for her support of all of us on the Coast and further afield, writers who depend on booksellers to help us find readers. Unlike the huge mega-business that is eating North America, Bev is part of an intricate network of local businesses who carry the work of local writers, artists, potters, and textile workers; these businesses donate to fund-raisers, the food-bank, school events, festivals, and they deserve our support. I hadn’t seen my book yet (my copies are in the mail) but there it was on the counter—

new book

—and when I asked if I could take a copy home and replace it once my own copies arrive, she said, Of course you can! That mega-business? I don’t believe it’s ever written my name on its windows or given me little gifts from time to time or hand-lettered gift certificates for my grandchildren to use when they next come to visit. Or encouraged me to take a copy with me so I could read it while John drove us home.

And speaking of hand-lettered…my husband generously printed a small keepsake to give to people who buy my book, while quantities last. Each card was put through our c. 1890 Chandler and Price platen press twice, once for each ink colour, and their numbers are limited. But leave me a message, if you haven’t already done so, and I’ll send you a keepsake.


There are passages in my book I’d almost forgotten writing. But dipping into the pages is like entering a body of water, ready to swim. Cool water, reminding you of tender ankles, warm wind, the way your heart catches just a little as you lower yourself in.

What the Thompson remembers:

The bodies of children in summer, brown and naked, some with inflated cuffs on their arms, pine cones blown from the sentinel trees, train-cars tipping their cargo—wheat, copper concentrate, coal, ethylene glycol, gold bullion. Rattlesnakes sunning themselves on warm rocks, the scent of Artemesia frigida, horse-sweat, a bale of hay tossed from a pickup to cattle and missing, falling down the rock slope and into the currents. Canoes. The cold water, from Mad River, Clearwater River, Chase Creek, Monte Creek, Tranquille River, Deadman River, Bonaparte Creek, Nicola River, Murray Creek, Skoonka Creek, Nicomen River, Botanie Creek. Fisherman washed from where their boots were planted in gravel near Spences Bridge, rafts, the long blue mornings at the dawn of the world when ash from Mazama settled on a small hunting camp on the banks of Oregon Jack Creek, some of it drifting into the water and rushing down into the body of the river.



“Do people, anymore, even say helmsman?” (Carl Phillips)


The other day I was carrying a basket of laundry out to hang on the line when I saw a tiny Pacific tree frog on the low cedar table on the patio. It was about an inch long. On its foreleg, a shimmering stroke of bronze. It stopped me. I called John. All morning I’d been listening to the news and reading reports of protests in American cities. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety and sadness. We stood by the table and looked closely at the frog. It must be one of this year’s, I said, though I hadn’t seen spawn in the usual places—the big Chinese pot in the garden where a few clumps of yellow flag irises provide shade or the old bathtub pool by the compost boxes. Maybe I just wasn’t looking carefully enough.

Sometimes the days accumulate in the old way, where the roses remind me of every year I’ve delighted in them, the lizards in the rocks by the back stairs, the Swainson’s thrushes just beyond my bedroom window at dawn. And sometimes, at least lately, they pass. I want them to pass, be gone. I want my old life back, the one in which I anticipated guests for dinner, traveled to see my dear family or watched at the blue window over my kitchen sink for the sight of them arriving. Arrivals, departures. There are none of those.

Some nights I wake and wonder where I am. I wake from dreams so terrible that I’m afraid to go back to sleep. And yet I’m lucky. I have space, enough to eat, things to do, a book I’m writing, a garden to tend, a wonderful person to talk to about everything under the sun and rain. But I still wonder where I am those nights I wake from dreams of fire and violence. Where I am in history. Where we all are, and what we will make of this moment.

Even though the lake hasn’t really warmed up, we’ve been swimming again. We go down after breakfast when there are tracks in the sand and the water is green with sunlight. I swim out past the rope articulating the safe area because I want to be out of bounds. I want the water deep and rippled by wind. Yesterday there were 3 female mergansers on a log, muttering. Sometimes we hear loons. On early summer mornings, a kingfisher works the shore, though I haven’t seen it yet this year. When I swim on my back, looking up at the sky, I am back in the life I’ve always loved. After the swim there will be hot coffee on the deck and talk of poetry or whether to build a greenhouse or not. But it doesn’t last. Not these days, and why should it? When I dream of fire, I know where it comes from, the streets dark with smoke and the sound of rubber bullets. A leader turning tanks on his own people, surrounded by a grim bunch of men (mostly) afraid to challenge him. Where will it go? Where will it end? We’ve heard this story before.

                            But what hasn’t been damaged? History
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long, their bowed shapes seem a kind of star—
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows what star to lean on. Do
people, anymore, even say helmsman? Everything
in waves, or at least wave-like, as when another’s
suffering, being greater, displaces our own, or
I understand it should, which is meant to be
different, I’m sure of it, from that pleasure
Lucretius speaks of, in witnessing from land
a ship foundering at sea, though more and more
it all seems related.
–Carl Phillips, from “Swimming”
When I am swimming, the water ruffled by wind, no one else on the shore but my husband wrapped in a towel, it could be any summer, any lake, any morning. Do people, anymore, even say helmsman?

“They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.”

In January, 2019, we read Dante’s Inferno, in Robert Pinsky’s lucid translation. We followed that with John Keats, his Odes. There is something very satisfying about reading aloud with another person (or several). About handing the book back and forth, and listening, really listening. In late fall we began Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and that was wonderful. That poem was composed to be recited and the language of it helps you to say it as it needs to be said, the vivid similes unwinding, the asides, the richly observed weather (because of course it had to be, the protagonist a man sailing home, with others, and alone).

We followed the Odyssey with The Darling & Other Stories, the first of the 13 volumes of The Tales of Chekhov. Years ago I read all 13 volumes over the course of a summer and it was perfect reading for the light-filled evenings. We finished the Chekhov night before last, talking about the last story, “Three Years”,  and the dissatisfaction of its central character.

So what would we read next? After dinner last night we talked about it for a few minutes and decided it should be poetry. What about Seeing Things? It was John who suggested that.

seeing things

I remember my excitement at the cover when I first bought the book shortly after it was published in 1991. You couldn’t have invented the symmetry of title and poet’s name marking themselves on the black background like carved stone. And that little boat? It’s part of the Broighter hoard, a group of small gold objects found by two men ploughing a field on the shore of Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland in 1896. The objects were made in the 1st century B.C. There was also a little bowl and a torc. In 2001 I was lucky enough to see these beautiful objects in the National Museum of Ireland and I remember peering at the boat in particular for a long time, marveling at the rows of oars in their oarlocks, the rudder paddle, and the elegant yardarm. I remember there were also (from about the same period?) crucibles for melting gold and silver and other tools for making such objects.

The book opens with a translated passage from Book V1 of the Aeneid, lines about the Golden bough. It’s an invocation.

                                              No one is ever permitted
To go down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first
Plucked this golden-fledged growth out of its tree
And handed it over to fair Prosperina, to whom it belongs
By decree, her own special gift. And when it is plucked,
A second one always grows in its place, golden again…

So we pluck, we enter the book, with a leaf held in the hand, ready to hand our token to the goddess of spring.

I read the invocation and then the first poem. John followed with “Markings” and “Three Drawings”. These are poems crafted with such care, such purpose. We chose the book almost at random, yet before we were finished our first reading from it, I was pierced with recognition of its absolute rightness for this moment of my life. I am writing about an early part of my family’s history in Canada in a long essay I’ve called “The River Door”, a title that came out of nowhere, or everywhere. I heard the words clearly, as though spoken out of thin air, early one morning just after waking. The river door, the river door. I wrote them down. And in this writing I am doing, I am discovering what they mean. I’ve read Seeing Things many times. When we come to the poems about the death of Seamus Heaney’s father, I suspect I’ll quote from memory. But what I hadn’t expected were these lines, read by John:

                               All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.

And now I go through, fearful but ready, my golden leaf in my hand.

at night, thinking

dog rose in the evening

It’s almost the end of May. I think of how nearly 3 months have passed since we learned that there were new risks to simply being alive. 3 months in which we’ve left home mostly just once a week, to shop for food; 3 months of long quiet days and quieter nights. I know there’s been a shift because there’s more ferry traffic and more boat noise down on Sakinaw Lake. It rises up to our house through the open windows. This evening I heard drumming down near Ruby Lake. The resort there has a amphitheatre where they stage events and I guess there’s something going on. People can’t seem to come to places like these lakes and beautiful forests without bringing their noise and their various toys. Jet skis and big hollow drums are the inevitable sounds of summer people.

This time has passed quickly. How the days are filled with things to do, even if they seem mundane. Meals have taken on a particular importance. I think about dinners with more care than usual, hoping to make them festive for the two of us. I bake bread, special cakes, like the lemon one with lemon and lavender butter cream that was so delicious I sent John down to the neighbours’ gate with half of it for them to enjoy. We’ve eaten fat organic chickens roasted with rosemary, fillets of sockeye salmon flecked with fresh dill, bowls of beets on their greens served with sour cream dense with fresh herbs—chives, parsley, dill, and lovage—, duck legs roasted with smoky paprika until the skin was deep mahogany, and lovely little potatoes (not ours, not yet, though they’re coming) with dollops of thick yoghourt and zaatar.

While I sit at my desk lit only by the small lamp, there are protests in major US cities. Sometimes it seems the world as we’ve known it is going up in flames and to be honest, some of it deserves to. This pandemic has served to focus attention on the inequalities inherent in North American culture. In Canada we’re doing better but we’re not perfect. The legacy of damage done to Indigenous communities is broad and ugly. Sometimes a crisis nudges us in the right direction even if we never quite get there. But reading about the protests in Atlanta and Minneapolis and Oakland, among others, brings home (literally, in my quiet room, while John sleeps and a loon calls down on the lake) how fractured the justice system is that allows a black reporter to be arrested as he covers the events before a police officer, with a history of violence against black men, is charged with the murder of a man he held to the ground by kneeling on his throat until the man died, calling that he couldn’t breathe.

This morning we swam, our 3rd day in a row. The lake was cool but once I began to find my place in the water, my rhythm in its gentle movement, it was as though I’d never stopped. As though the winter never happened, my slow kilometers in the local pool, driving home with hair smelling faintly of chlorine even after a shower. A couple of young families were also there, the children so eager to be in the water, and I realized how difficult it’s been for everyone to navigate this new map we are trying to learn. My grandchildren call and we read books over WhatsApp but I bet they’d much rather race around the parks near their homes with other kids. Two of them told me very seriously that they couldn’t go to school because of The Virus. (Kindergarten and pre-school…) John remembers being kept home from school the first year his family spent in Calgary after emigrating from England—he would have been 6—because of the polio epidemic. He remembers trucks spraying the lanes in his neighbourhood because it wasn’t yet understood how the virus spread. I’m a little younger. I remember being 6 and given a sugar cube soaked with pink vaccine in a church basement where my mother had walked my younger brother and me to a temporary clinic for our first experience of needles. We were luckier than a friend of my older brother who had polio and who never quite recovered.

So there’ve always been perils to being alive. But none have felt quite like this. The immediate isolation because of COVID19 and the police cars in flames in major American cities while a president rages against perceived slights. We do what we can. It’s not enough. But at this moment in history, what is? I don’t ask that frivolously. I truly want to know.

Earlier this evening, I was lying in my bed reading the last section of Francesca Wade’s wonderful Square Haunting. Virginia Woolf in Sussex is trying to find a way to write about her life. As German bombers fly overhead nightly on their way to London, she walks in her garden, plays bowls with Leonard, and is trying to keep herself from descending into the despair that we all know is inevitable and that will send her, pockets full of stones, into the River Ouse. I know this story but was reading it tonight as though for the first time. But I looked up from my book at one point because of the sweetest scent just drifting in through the curtains, sweet enough to take me from the pages where a city was in flames and people huddled in shelters in their nightclothes. I walked out onto the deck to bury my face in dog roses. In the heat of the day, they have almost no perfume but as the night cools down, oh, what beauty. I am writing something about the past myself and some days I am there, caught up in the years and experiences so deeply that I have to extract myself almost physically from my work in order to snip dill for the salmon or shape the bread. It’s how I am finding my way through the present. Once I surface, it’s like coming out of the lake from a swim, refreshed, but also a little bereft.

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper…
                              — from “Moments of Being”

One day all of this will also be part of that deep river, something we remember vividly,

knowing how it changed us.

“On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree”


When I was writing Mnemonic: A Book of Treesit was published in 2011 so this was perhaps 2009?—I had a conversation with a range ecologist on Vancouver Island with a particular interest in Garry oak habitat. He sent me a map showing the historical range of those iconic oaks on lower Vancouver Island as well as the contemporary range and the difference was startling. The ecosystem of these trees is a complex community of  plants, animals, and insects. Saving a tree alone doesn’t necessarily result in its survival. The ecologist recommended to me that I try growing some Garry oaks myself if I thought my land would be congenial for them because extending their range might also assist their survival. Maybe 5 years ago on a walk around Rithet’s Bog in Victoria, I collected 6 acorns and brought them home. I planted them in the fall and that spring I was delighted to see that one of them had sprouted. Now each spring I’m so happy to see my little tree grow a few inches taller and I love watching the new leaves unfurl.

My Garry oak is ready to plant out. I have in mind a mossy bluff to the south of our house—you can see it in the background of the photograph of the oak in its pot—with an arbutus, Douglas firs beyond, lots of wildflowers (though not camas; I think I’ll try introducing some of those if I can. I know they grow elsewhere on the Coast here and there are also chocolate lilies on one of the small islands in Ruby Lake near us), and snakes, northern alligator lizards, and many species of moss and lichens.

The thing is, I have three other small white oaks to plant too. (Well, one is planted but not in a good place.) They’re little trees I found growing on the side of the trail to Sakinaw Lake. They’re not native oaks. Someone on the lake has an oak, I know, because I’ve seen the leaves on the trail in fall, blown from one of the properties of people who are here only in summer. These tiny oaks were probably the result of acorns buried by squirrels or jays. The edge of the trail is thick with bramble, salal, and other rampant growers. I brought the seedlings home because I knew they’d be smothered in a season or two. I don’t know what species they are apart from the fact that I believe they’re white oaks—their lobes are rounded at the tips rather than pointed, as with red oaks—and their new growth is beautiful.

little oak

It’s late in my life to plant oak trees. I’m 65, John is 72, and we’re living in a world fraught with danger. I’d planned to gather a few more Garry oak acorns in the fall on Vancouver Island but will we be allowed to travel? Will I want to? Home feels so much less perilous than the world beyond our property line and although I go out one day a week to buy groceries, I find myself limited in what I do because I just want to get the shopping over with so I can go home.

But I have 4 grandchildren. And if you’ve been keeping track, I have 4 tiny oaks. Is it stretching credulity to say that I want these children to have an oak grove to sit within if the world survives what we’ve done to it. If we survive as a species. When I look out at the sweet mossy bluff green-gold with new growth and sunlight, I can dream them onto its soft slope, the oaks and the children, perhaps finding an acorn in the moss and thinking that it’s something they could plant. Like W.S. Merwin, I want to think of the trees surviving. (“On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree”) The children too. By then there might be drifts of blue camas and fawn lilies by the rocks, there might be a sky clearer than any we could imagine, and the deer stepping into the forest with her young ones, gods returned to us because we needed them.