posts

“the most archaic values on earth”

bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the unlived life

leaving

It wasn’t this doe and her young that appeared down by the crabapple tree this morning but another, and just one fawn, most of its spots gone but a few sprinkled across its back. I chased them into the woods because the greenhouse was open and the honeysuckle is spilling over the garden gate, waiting for me to coax it along the top of the fence. I chased them into the woods and then ten minutes later they were on the other side of the house, exploring the grass just below my study window. This time I used the Indian cowbell I keep handy to use as a dinner bell (but always forget to ring) and they bolted into the woods just about where the doe in the photograph is leading her young. There’s a game trail there and it meanders–I’m supposing; I’ve never taken it– down to Sakinaw Lake, a reliable water source for animals this time of year. We’ve just returned from a walk beyond the Malaspina substation, the first time in ages, and I’ve never seen it so dry, the little creeks dried up, the blackberries hard and shrivelled on their canes. Well, most of them. We found enough to make a crisp, a mixture of Himalayans and cutleafs, a last song of summer for tonight’s dessert.

How did it get to be so late? In summer, in history, in my own life? I saw a link in my newsfeed the other day to a piece on how to come to terms with the unlived life–I didn’t click!–but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The unlived life. What does that mean? The life in which I might have been more productive, a singer, thinner, with spotlesss rooms, immaculate linen (doing the laundry yesterday, I scrubbed at strange marks on our linen sheets and sighed bringing them off the clothes line, still marked), tidy book shelves, maybe a PhD in botany, travel to Iceland and Siberia, kinder to those with whom I disagree, a better friend, a more generous and patient mother. In that unlived life, I hope I would still have met and married John, though I hope I would have been (again) more patient.

 

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love

In that unlived life, would I describe myself now, 42 years later, as “wild with love”? I’m not. I’m dense with it, rich with it, but no longer wild. I reach for my husband’s hand in sleep. I massage his injured foot. He is my dearest companion. We have lived through so many seasons that they have become a river of memory.

Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.

How did it get to be so late? The other day I needed my address book to label a birthday parcel for Henry and I was surprised at the number of names I’ve made little stars beside, with the word “Deceased”. Family members, friends, people who weren’t either but with whom I had long and interesting correspondence. Names of those who are still alive but who have disappointed me, or me them. Someone John has known since he was 21 (he’s now 73) and who behaved in a way that seemed at the time unforgivable now lies in a hospital bed, no longer truly himself. John, the more generous in our relationship, made a visit to the hospital but the old friend, old betrayer, was asleep, so he left again, saddened. In the unlived life, I might have sent flowers with him, sweet roses and fragile pink Japanese anemones. In this life, I didn’t. Though perhaps it’s not too late.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Would the unlived life have been like this one, full of sweetness and sorrow, full of dry grasses on the mountain path, hard berries, deep shade where the trail winds through a grove of bigleaf maples and a single balsam fir, where when sleepless you turn in your bed and there’s someone warm to tuck yourself up against, would the unlived life have been a long gift of mornings by the fire, listening to rain, or would it have put children on your lap for stories, your own children and theirs, and would you come across a photograph of your love and you, impossibly young, the secret of your firstborn in your smiles on that August afternoon 41 years ago?

jp-tk

 

Whatever you choose to claim   
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.

_________________________

Note: the passages of poetry are by the glorious Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me”, “The Layers”, and “Passing Through”.

small (almost) September songs

1.

foxy

In the night, footfall on the roof. In moonlight, a raccoon on its way back from feasting on the grapes over the western pergola. Thump as it jumped from roof to upper deck just by John’s pillow. Through white curtains, the moonlight guided it home. And now a bowl of grapes on the counter because as one friend reminded me, The raccoons know the exact moment they are ripe. Through white curtains tonight, we will hear them rummaging among the leaves, rummaging in disappointment.

2.

preserves2

Waiting for the ping of lids as jars of peach and rosemary preserves cool on the counter beside the spiced blueberry preserves with vanilla. Waiting for the ping, I see a fan of wings against the big window. Not a robin in the lilac — too big. Not a Steller’s jay whistling for the morning seeds. Wiping my hands on my apron, I open the door to see a merlin hawk gliding over the stairs leading down from the pergola. So was that the strange call I heard earlier? Not the Steller’s jay. Not the woodpeckers down in the big cedars beyond the old orchard. I am listening to Steve Earle sing about the low highway and I am thinking, thinking of a late September trip to Edmonton if all goes well, following the Fraser, then the Thompson, then the Fraser again near its headwaters, and then the mountains.

As I roll on the down the low highway
Travelling now
On the low highway
By the yellow moon
And the light of day
From the snow white crown
Of the mountain tall
To the valley down
Where the shadows fall

3.

zinnia, drenched

In the greenhouse, misting the tall pepper plants, the eggplants, the vivid bougainvillea, scented geraniums, I was trying to figure out the best way to keep things watered while we drive to the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Festival as September turns into October. We haven’t been away from home since last October for John’s surgery and things have changed. We have a greenhouse, we have wanderlust. We have ordered a timer for the hose that snakes through the stone base of the greenhouse and comes up through the sand and pebbles along the western side. A mister? A small sprinkler set on the long wild-edged bench along that side? As I am thinking, a tree frog chirps. Chirps as the cool mist settles on the leaves of the eggplants and zinnias, as the raccoons turn in their shelter and dream of grapes in moonlight, as the jars ping on the counter, as Steve Earle’s beautiful gravelly voice carries me forward into fall.

Cross the rivers wild
And the lonesome plains
Up the coast and down
And back again

redux: essays in blue

Note: I found this post this morning while looking for something else. I wrote that I had 8 essays towards a book for which I had a title, Blue Portugal, and that I was planning a trip to Ukraine where I hoped to gather material for a 9th essay. I did travel to Ukraine and I wrote that 9th essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”; I wrote another, “The River Door”, about my grandmother’s experience of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, to complete the collection. It will be published in spring 2022 by the University of Alberta Press.

Blue Portugal 3 cover1

________________

an essay in blue

In the past year, I’ve written most of a collection of essays. This surprises me—and doesn’t. I knew I had threads I wanted to pursue, into a labyrinth of blue pigment, textiles, family history (again! or still?), and some other unknown and perhaps decorative elements. I had a title, Blue Portugal, and I knew that the title would help to determine something of the process of identifying likely threads.

And why the essay specifically for this work? Although I’ve written poetry in the far past and a version of fiction in the not-so-far past (and present), the essay form(s) somehow welcome(s) my own strange metabolic writing style and interests. You will find writers who will argue quite fiercely for what an essay is or isn’t. I’m more interested in what it can be. That its borders are notional. That it welcomes ideas, materials, figurative language, metrical incursions, and really almost anything that a writer cares to bring to it. I don’t mean that it is undisciplined as a form but that its disciplines are not (as they say) written in stone, though an essay would be very interested in learning about about glyphs and maybe the influence of the beautiful carved letters on Trajan’s column.

Last week I wrote an essay, over two mornings, called “Anatomy of a Button”. This one came out of the blue, literally, as I sewed buttons on an indigo quilt. And when I edited it several times and placed it in the draft manuscript of Blue Portugal, I saw that there are now 8 essays. I know I have one more (at least) to write but that one has to wait until after the middle of September when I’ll return from a trip to Ukraine to learn something about the country, and more specifically the village, my grandfather left in 1907. John and I had planned to go to Ukraine last September but an unexpected health issue arose instead. I’ve had a little literary windfall which means we can try again this fall. I’m in the process of organizing it now.

The 8 essays I’ve written are all different. They use language and even the white space of the page differently. Some of them sing. One of them uses a particular piece of music (Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D Minor) to investigate grief, the speaker of the essay taking on each of the dance moments of the Partita, sometimes gracefully, sometimes awkwardly, to move through space and time, noticing as she dances the strings of a violin bow, the bodies of those in the Cancer Institute as she waits for her own procedure, and the number of breaths a person takes in a life if you stop to do the math. Sometimes in these essays I stop to do the math (as I did in “Euclid’s Orchard”). Sometimes I tie cloth with hemp string and dip it repeatedly in indigo dye. Sometimes I visit rivers with my husband. I wonder about taking psychotropic drugs in order to recover the beauty of entoptic phenomenon experienced when my retinas were trying to detach in Edmonton in winter.

I think nothing gives me more pleasure than realizing that I have an essay to write. My pulse speeds up. Nothing else matters. I feel dazzled by and with language, pulled along in its flow and currents. This winter has been like that. So many nights I’ve come downstairs to work at my desk while the night breaths around me, essays in blue while owls called, coyotes mated, weasels raced through the eavestroughs. Having written these 8 essays, I kind of wonder what’s next. Imagine a single thread, dazzling in its colours and texture. Take it in your hand and wonder about it. Is it strong, is it tied securely to something as yet unknown, unseen? I don’t like confined space and if the thread leads down under the earth, I probably won’t follow. Not yet. But sometimes I dream of darkness, the comfort of it, and the fear. I’ll keep tugging, just a little, and maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to take the first step down.

halcyon days

morning lake 2

Yesterday when we went down for our swim around 8:30, a kingfisher flew from a log near where I enter the water. It gave a small cry as it flew to the other side of the beach and then disappeared into the dense cedar boughs reaching out over the shallows. I love to see kingfishers. There were often two of them in late May when we began our daily morning swims. They’d rattle and cry and sometimes fly off but sometimes they’d just keep fishing for sticklebacks and minnows. Last month I could see a whole family of them farther along the lake, darting out and plunging, then returning to the trees.

It’s considered good luck to see a kingfisher. For someone who always observes the magpie courtesies when in places where magpies are common (“Hello, Mrs. Magpie, how is Mr. Magpie and all the little magpies?”), who believes that sparrows carry the souls of the dead and that it’s not good to see an owl during daylight, this is music to her (my) ears. There’s been so much to fear and regret over the past year. The lost visits, the Christmas for two, a surgery gone sideways, friends coping with difficult health issues, the larger world dangerous and filled with suffering, wildfires burning, the planet under threat from our careless habits…For a time it seemed that things might improve in the fall. Then the situation in Afghanistan, the Delta strain of the virus, a decision to cancel a much-anticipated trip to the Czech Republic to celebrate the publication of John’s poems at a festival in Ostrava and the opportunity to see friends there, including his translator, the general uncertainty about the future, well, it’s hard some days to imagine better times.

And yet the past month was halycon. Our children visited with their families, our grandchildren christened the moss patch between the house and the woods “the field”, they raced up and down its golden length, they brought me gifts of dandelions, pretty stones, a handful of fallen maple leaves, and asked me to read the old picture books I love–When I Was Young In the Mountains, Over In the Meadow, The Seven Silly Eaters — and one of them curled up with me on my bed to hear The Snow Goose for the first time.

When the kingfisher flew yesterday morning, I watched it as I walked into deep water. Where did the young go so soon that only a single bird remains, fishing alone in the early hours? The lake was very quiet. A few geese over past the island, a plane high in the blue air. There’s a Samoan proverb, The grasshopper flies about, but the kingfisher watches him. Maybe I’ve been the grasshopper all along, too restless, too impatient, and maybe the kingfisher has something to teach me. A steady indifference? A resolute attention to what is? And what is? A morning swim in a quiet lake, strength, the beauty of my family still vivid in my mind and heart, the sound of the kingfisher as it flew out beyond me, strident and clear.

morning, fragments

henry, fishing

1.

I was driving our old brown pick-up truck, the one we bought in 1983 for lumber, manure, bags of seaweed, little apple trees to begin the orchard we eventually abandoned. I was driving our pick-up truck and Lily was in the back, still alive, and I looked back to see her there, her ears fluttering a little in the wind. I’d missed the school bus but it didn’t matter because I had the truck and where were the children? I didn’t know. In the dream I drove along the highway past the lake and when I reached the turn to our driveway, it was no longer there. It was grown over and there was no way home.

2.

Hearing them drive away this morning, the last carload, on their way to Texada Island for a few days of camping before heading back to Edmonton, I paused for a few minutes to finish my coffee. The house so quiet. The empty beds.

3.

Waxwings eating the grapes, Steller’s jays squawking for seeds, two chickadees on the clothesline beside the sheets I hung out earlier, and as I swam my slow laps in the lake, a family of Canada geese, 5 of them, gliding by in deeper water, farther away by the minute.

redux: “The walks in the fields are corridors.”

Note: Two years ago yesterday, I wrote this post. What was unknown, in the future? Covid 19, a year and a half of virtual isolation. I finished the novella I was writing in this post and I will probably never publish it. One publisher read it and felt it was too autobiographical. And yes, it is, with significant differences– or so I thought. Perhaps not significant enough. I loved writing it though and maybe that’s enough. I am thinking of it this morning as the dust from the last carload of family members still hovers over the driveway and the quiet settles in after a month of lively meals, conversations, late night glasses of wine on the deck, little kids racing around, climbing into bed with me in the mornings.

your table is ready

When I was about 21 and figuring out how to be a writer, I sometimes helped at an antiquarian bookstore on Fort Street in Victoria. I liked being there. There were old Persian carpets on the floor and shelves filled with treasures. The owner, who was a friend, gave me books instead of money and that was perfect. Once he presented me (there is no other word) with a copy of a first UK edition (though possibly not a first printing) of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, with a cover design by Vanessa Bell. He made a little speech about her being a good model for me as a young writer and that he knew I would love the book. He’d enclosed a sweet card that I used as a bookmark, and yes, I did love the book. A year or two later I was teaching a writing course at the Y, the one across from Christ Church Cathedral, and I loaned books to the students in that way you do when you are very trusting. I think every book came back except A Writer’s Diary. I’ve borrowed it from the library many times but for some reason I’ve never replaced it. Well, let’s be honest. That particular volume, given in those circumstances, couldn’t be replaced.

A week or two ago, I needed the book. I’m writing a novella (I think it will be a novella, though there’s a chance it might be longer…) that takes as its template Mrs. Dalloway. An anticipated party, the preparations, and of course the flowers. The party in my book will be site-specific and the site is here, though the characters are not us and the house is a bit bigger (to accommodate all the guests who are arriving by ferry, car, plane) and there is even a little guest house, a tiny house on wheels, and that is something I’d love to have here but I don’t think we will take on the work at this point in our lives. My book will be called The Occasions. Even during the busy whirl of the past month, with visiting children and their children, with visiting musicians for the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, I was awake many nights working at my desk. I didn’t want to lose momentum. I wanted the guidance of someone who knew how a book can take over both the waking life and the dreaming one.

I ordered a copy of A Writer’s Diary, the very elegant Persephone edition, and it arrived in today’s mail. I’m so happy to see that the end papers are based on the original Vanessa Bell cover! I opened to August, 1924, when I knew Virginia Woolf was working on Mrs. Dalloway.

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forget some most important intervening scenes: I think I can go straight at the grand party and so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense and ticklish business, and jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; and the walks in the fields are corridors; and now today I’m lying thinking.

Mine is a tale in which I know the place and thought I knew how the events would unfold but something dark is happening and I think I wanted to know that it didn’t need to take over my life. Someone isn’t invited to the party for a whole lot of complicated reasons and she has begun to haunt the proceedings. I’m not quite sure what to do about it. About her. In the meantime, the narrator is surrounded by loved ones, the flowers arranged in big jugs for the long table that is being set with French cloths on the grass by the vegetable garden, and someone is tuning her oud. Yes, her oud. I know nothing about these beautiful pear-shaped instruments but a woman has brought it out to the big rock to the south of the house and I can see the rosettes on its soundboard from where I sit. Or at least I’d be able to see them if she really existed and if an oud was truly being tuned for the party. The walks in the fields are corridors, Virginia wrote, and I am walking them, walking them, listening to music.

a month

chainsaw education

It’s been almost a month. Our older son and his family arrived on July 23 for 3 weeks. Our daughter, her partner, and his two children came for nearly two weeks, overlapping Forrest and then Brendan and his family , who arrived 10 days ago and who will leave on Monday. Sometimes there were 6 of us, sometimes 10. Almost every meal was eaten on the deck, under the vines. We had black cod and prawns, swimming scallops, pasta with pesto from the basil I grow against a warm wall, eggplants from my greenhouse, tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. We had an Indian meal in honour of Angelica’s partner Karna (saag paneer, pakoras), prime rib because it seems to be our traditional celebratory meal, pizza because same, blueberry pancakes, chocolate cake, peach and blackberry pie, homemade ice-cream (maple, peach/ginger, vanilla, chocolate). We had lots of wine, good (Desert Hills 2014 Syrah with beef) and not so good. We had cider from Brickers, the cider mill in west Sechelt, and beer from various craft breweries. A couple of nights there were nightcaps of smoky single malt. Aperol spritzes. Empress gin and rose petal syrup. Some days it was too hot to do anything but swim and eat ice-cream. Ocean swims in Trail Bay and at Francis Point. Lake swims in our beloved Ruby Lake. Visits to the bookstore to redeem the gift certificates.

There were stories. Uncles and fathers and brothers and sisters.

brendan reading

forrest reading

There were tattoos.

tattoo

There were arrivals and leavetakings and trips to Egmont where the chainsaw exhibit in the museum was much admired and to the playground at Madeira Park in the shadow of the elementary school where Forrest, Brendan, and Angelica all attended. One grandchild wondered which room was the one haunted by the ghost of Nelly. Another wondered if his dad had been a good basketball player only at his school or if he would have been considered good at any school. Questions, questions.

In the house right now there are 4 of us. Brendan and Cristen are having a few days away without children (Forrest and Manon enjoyed the same break during their visit) and last night I came downstairs because I heard a child crying, being guided to me by his sister. “I was afraid,” he said. I tucked him back into bed and then tidied his sister’s blankets before tucking her in too. Suddenly she said, “It’s such a winding highway. I never get carsick but now I’m carsick.” And I realized that she was not quite awake, was dreaming of the road to our house, or the road away. It’s almost the end of the family visit.

This morning John came in and said to the two children and me, “Get ready for a little mystery trip,” and we gathered our stuff together. First we found some worms in the compost box. Then he took us down to Ruby Lake and snapped the kids into life-jackets. One of them carried a tackle-box and one of them carried the worms. In the grey light, I sat on a log and watched them fish.

casting

Two more nights. There’s a pile of laundry that almost reaches the ceiling and every toy in the house is strewn between the kitchen and the back bedrooms. Books are everywhere. Looking out my study window I see the remnants of the party the children planned for Karna, an unexpected birthday surprise, with balloons, games set up on the mossy field, confetti of dandelion seeds, and the promise of hazelnut cake decorated by a quartet of small hands. At one point, I looked around at the shoes by the front door, flung every whichway, the drawings abandoned on the floor, the Lego creations balanced on the edge of the kitchen counter, and I must have sighed because John said to me quietly, “This is what we built our house for.”

And it was.

what I hoped for

zinnias

Everyone was getting ready to go out to Egmont to the Backeddy Pub for lunch and I was half-listening to them, half paying attention to the job I was doing, which was misting the greenhouse with a hose. I’d watered the tubs of peppers and eggplants and I was giving the interior the benefit of cool spray. The scent of water on dry plants, on the concrete pavers we used for the floor, and on the cedar bench John made from a wild-edged plank was lovely. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something moving. It was a tree frog, a medium-sized one. You can’t see it in this photograph but it was climbing along the black metal base edged by beach stones. I was so glad to see that it had made its own way into the greenhouse–I leave the door open on these summer days–and I called the children over to see it. They crowded around the exterior of the south wall and peered at the frog. Maybe Henry leaned too hard against the plastic but he’s 5 and extremely alive. The frog tucked itself into a corner of the base and the children ran to join the others who were getting into their cars. I finished misting and thought to myself, This is what you hoped for. Not just showing the children frogs. There have been several sightings in the past while. Two reliably perched above the kitchen window. Another in the basil on the upper deck. One on the trim around a window right by the table on the deck where we’ve been eating most of our meals this summer. That one chirped a little on the day it rained.

But I hoped that a frog found the greenhouse on its own because I want the utility of them in the plants, eating small invertebrates, and I want the beauty of them. In a way I think of frogs as my familiars. I don’t mean this in a New Age way, or maybe I do. I mean that they appear on windows, once on a mirror, sometimes on the leaf of a rose I am about to prune. They draw my eye to the thing itself and they draw my inner eye, asking me to take the time to look, to think, to love, if that doesn’t sound too sentimental. Because I love these small creatures with their wise eyes and patience. They are intermediaries in my garden, a link between me and the plants. If I could stay still on a leaf and simply observe the world, I’d do that.

In a very practical way, they are an indicator species. They have thin skin, which they breath through, and they need clean water and air. Every time I complain to companies devoted to glyphosates, I remind them about this–the highways ministry eager to spray Round-Up against orange hawkweed on the roadsides, many of them adjacent to water sources. I could feel the person on the other end of the phone rolling her eyes as I politely but maybe garrulously registered my objection to the recent application on the highway below my land. It’s often like talking to rocks but I do what I can where I have my own jurisdiction: keeping clean water in bowls for frogs, maintaining an old cast-iron bathtub pond for them near the compost, and never using herbicides or pesticides.

greenhouse frog

After I saw the frog in the greenhouse, I went up to give the basil a drink of liquid kelp, and there on a leaf was a brand-new tree frog the size of my thumbnail. I put a yogourt container near it and it hopped in. I took it down to the greenhouse, hoping it would stay around, because I noticed aphids on one of the pepper plants the other day. When I returned an hour later, it was still sitting in its tub. I’d love for it to live on the olive tree to remind me to take my time, to pay attention. This is what you hoped for, I reminded myself, filling the big bucket of water in the corner of the greenhouse and leaving the frog to its peace.

古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音

The old pond

A frog leaps in.

Sound of the water.

–Matsuo Basho, composed in 1686

olives

redux: “we’ll do the best we know…”

(Note: I was awake for a couple of hours in the night and was looking for something I’d written 3 years ago. I found this post. Our woodshed is not in good shape right now. We’ve been reluctant to fill it during this period of extreme drought because of its proximity to the house. And how is it that the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival seems to far away, in time and in experience? For 15 summers, our community was the locus for wonderful music. We’d already decided to scale it back, the cohort of volunteers sort of worn down and no new ones on the horizon. But there was going to be music last summer and this one and everything had to be postponed until the world is safer.)

firewood gate2

An hour ago, while swimming, I caught a thread of autumn in the morning air. That slightly winey scent of leaves, a riffle of cool breeze unheard of a week ago when there was sun on the sand at 8:30. Maybe I noticed it because earlier I’d been reading the Autumn section of Bruce Hutchison’s A Life in the Country with my first cup of coffee. I’ve always loved his books and I found this copy at the Friends of the Sechelt Library book sale a few weeks ago. 2 bucks. It’s an elegant memoir of the author’s home-building in North Quadra near Victoria (the same neighbourhood my parents lived in), garden-making, renovations at the cabin he owned at Shawnigan Lake. He wrote so elegantly and beautifully of the dailiness of keeping a place intact, of welcoming visitors, of the strange and wonderful cast of characters who peopled his world. But back to Autumn. His meditations on the woodshed rang a familiar bell.

If, occasionally, our politicians turned from rhetoric to reality and grasped an axe instead of a debating point or photo opportunity much social damage might be avoided. 
For those who can read its message, the woodshed rebukes such errors. Neatly piled (a high skill in itself), the contents, unlike all paper assets and printed money, are real wealth, an honest measure of value never diminished by the legal counterfeiting known as inflation. And when the chopper inspects the drying wood for next spring’s fire, he must be a little surprised by his own morality. His work, his sweat, his muscle and ache have created that wealth, or at least preserved it. He has asked no wages and he has toiled while his guests revelled in summer idleness.  
There is a darker side to the lesson of the woodshed. A moral chopper should ask himself what right he has to nature’s generosity when multitudes of human beings are cold in winter and hungry in all seasons. A nice question, especially for Canadians who, possessing a transcontinental treasure, grossly mismanage it by defying the woodshed principle.  
The moral question remains, and it has baffled philosophers of every faith since mankind left its caves—how much of nature’s yield does any nation or individual deserve? What volume of wealth are we entitled to hoard for our own use in woodshed or written contract?

We burn a lot of wood over the fall, winter, and spring. We buy some now that we’re past middle age and we cut what we can on our own land. We’re eyeing the dead young cedars, victims of two years of hot dry summers, and once it’s safe to take a saw into the woods, we’ll spend some time taking down what we can. When our older son visits in October, he may be conscripted for some woodcutting too. It’s good work, if hard on the muscles. But it also makes you grateful for a warm fire made with logs you’ve cut, split, and stacked yourself. Last year, in November, we had a load of dry pitchy fir delivered to supplement what we’d brought in ourselves. And the delivery coincided with two things: an emergency surgical procedure for John; and the visit of our Edmonton family. While he convalesced, I stacked wood in the shed; and Cristen, Kelly, and Henry filled the woodbox and kindling bucket in the porch as needed. Mostly John does these jobs and it was good for the rest of us to take them on, to know the luxury of a fire afterwards.

Yesterday was the first day of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved since the beginning season, 14 years ago, with a break of a couple of years in the middle. It’s always a fabulous weekend of intimate chamber music in the most beautiful setting—a restored Forestry building on a little hill above the harbour, surrounded by big trees. The opening event was this year’s Rising Tide, our annual celebration of young performers; the concert is a gift to the community. We were treated to a programme ranging from John Dowland to Leonard Bernstein. It was during the duet “Make Our Garden Grow”, from Bernstein’s operetta Candide, that I reached for my husband’s hand and squeezed it. It was our life, in a way, in the way that music can reach into your heart, play it as deftly as any instrument, in the words of Richard Wilbur, the poet who wrote the lyric for this particular version of the libretto:

We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.