posts

le matin

Morning does not seem to be the right word for now, for the now I am living, feeling, as I walk onto the upper deck where the roses are beginning to open,

rose

where the air still feels full of the owl calls I heard in the night, barred owls mostly, but another, farther away, two notes only, and where the tomatoes are growing inches by the day.

tomatoes

The day began with a call from Ottawa where that family was driving back from a hike and the grandsons were full of news. A dragonfly nymph in the pool they’d created in the backyard for tadpoles and other pond life. A dragonfly nymph that breathes through its bum! This, in French and English! After talking to them, I thought about the Edmonton family, camping in Jasper, having left on Thursday in snow…And I felt gratitude, because Angelica and her beau received their first shots of Pfizer yesterday.

Yesterday at this time I was beginning to prepare for our first lunch guests in more than a year. We’d eat outside and the day was only half-sunny. Was it too early to open our lives to actual contact with others? When I pulled a linen cloth from the pine bureau, I saw that a mouse had chewed a bit of it for a nest. That mouse was around last year but it shows how long it’s been since I’ve used a tablecloth. Was it wrong to leave them so long in a dark drawer? The moon plates, the silver, pretty napkins bought in San Francisco. The deck was beautiful (“Like Greece!” our friends exclaimed, as we sat under wisteria and leafing grape-vine, capiz shell chimes tinkling, and the table laid with tomato tart, cheeses, duck pâté with apricots, salad from the upper deck, and Prosecco in the faux Murano glasses). We kept our distance physically but how lovely it was to talk across the table again, to take up a conversation began many years ago and to extend it as naturally as air.

Just after our friends left, I looked out the window to see a young black bear approaching the deck, hoping for leftovers. Realizing it had been spotted, it disappeared into thin air, like the owl calls last night, the sound of capiz shells, the scent of roses as they open in the morning, fresh and almost honeyed, and the sweetness of yellow daylilies before the sun reaches them, opening, opening. Some mornings I feel as though I am hovering between this world and another and I don’t have the words to say who I am.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

   —Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

flava

“you breathed like a tree in the quiet light’

olive flowers

Yesterday I was sitting with my coffee in the greenhouse when I caught the faintest scent in the air. What was it? Not the smell of tomato plants or damp soil. Not the scented geranium cuttings on the long bench. But right at my feet, the olive tree was blooming.

I have three small olive trees. One of them, the one with blossoms, is Arbequina. It’s self-fruitful but I know that the blossoms are wind-pollinated. My intention was to keep the tree outside for the milder months but I’ve read that deer love the leaves and the greenhouse is right on the desire path of the does that pass through our place in every season, feeding on anything they can find. Cherry sprouts, roses (if not caged), grape leaves…Almost every day the door to the greenhouse is open and there’s a roof vent too. When I saw that the flowers on the olive were opening, I gave the tree a gentle shake. Pale gold pollen fell from one cluster so I think that might do it.

The olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers
the rocks with the wisdom of our fathers
and our brother’s blood alive on the earth
were a vital joy, a rich pattern
for the souls who knew their prayer.
 
I have two other olive trees, smaller, found on a half-price table at the grocery store in Sechelt. They had no tags but I recognized they were olives and checked with the woman responsible for the plant area to confirm. She didn’t know the variety. No blossoms on them, not yet, but I’m hopeful for the future.
 
basil and small olive
 
Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light
 
When I think of olives, I think of Greece. I think of Crete where I lived for a time as a young woman, renting a room in a house owned by a woman called Aphrodite. She owned an olive grove with her family and once I went with them to help with the harvest. They used something like a broom (homemade) to brush the olives from the trees to loosely woven sheets spread on the ground below. The village had a press operated by donkeys who walked in patient circles as the stones pressed the olives and oil ran into little channels to buckets.  Aphrodite poured fresh green oil into small bowls and we dipped bread into it. Maybe that’s what I was remembering as I sat in the blue chair and smelled the olive blossoms, maybe that’s the dream I’m hoping to pursue with my three little trees. An Arbequina will begin to produce at three years. Only 2% of flowers will result in olives. Maybe this year there will be a handful to pick and cure and who knows, maybe the other two trees will surprise me with blossoms in a year or two. Looking out at the greenhouse, I am seeing it suddenly as a moment in the future, grey-green leaves pressed to its ceiling, its walls, reaching for the vent. 
 
The harbour is old, I can’t wait any longer
for the friend who left the island with the pine trees
for the friend who left the island with the plane trees
for the friend who left for the open sea.
 
 
Note: the passages of poetry are from “Mythistorema” by George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley
 
 

among the seedlings and birdsong

akebia

These May mornings are gifts, the sun over Mount Hallowell around 8:30, birdsong loud where the woods meet our garden. I walked out this morning and heard myself (as though from a distance) singing a song I’ve written about before, another May, about the meadows and flowers gay and whom should I spy but my own true lover, and I thought how a month can contain so many versions of itself. The Mays we travelled to Ottawa to see our family there, the Mays when we celebrated the arrival of new books or the nomination of others for prizes,

may books

the Mays when we went into Vancouver for prize galas or concerts or just to see friends. This May is different. But still lovely. And it will enter the long archive of memories—the 14th month of a world-altering pandemic, the first month when the seedlings were grown in the greenhouse,

armenian cucumbers

the month when I thought to myself, why just built teepees for the beans, why not make sculptural supports and let the beans find a new way of using their tendrils,

bean tree

because maybe they’re eager to break out of old patterns. It’s a month of salad greens, most of them growing on a wild-edged cedar bench on the upper deck (because in the garden this time of year, it’s hard to protect them against slugs),

salad bar

and what a pleasure it is to take a colander up to cut arugula, lettuce, mixed greens (but not the tray of Triomphe de Farcy beans on the end of the bench, ready to try out the new tree of arbutus branches left by the butchers who keep the Hydro road clear where we walk on the mountain (young trees hacked to pieces, the patch of miner’s lettuce gone), a piece of old wisteria, some ocean spray–ironwood in some lexicons). I walked out this bright May morning, coffee in hand, singing an old song (“When misfortune falls sure no man can shun it’), among the seedlings and birdsong, the month a version of itself, like the others but new, new, shadowed momentarily as a cloud passes the sun, birds quiet for a few seconds only, a small snake curled around itself in warm moss beneath a huckleberry bush.

“…home to itself at a porch corner”

IMG_20210512_082402532 (3)

When I was awake in the night, I thought about how hard it will be to find a way to adjust to what’s coming after we are all vaccinated and this virus has been at least managed if not overcome. I was thinking of occasions, how we will anticipate them, acknowledge them, celebrate them. I remember the virtual clinking of glasses as my family “met” for a glass of Christmas cheer, each in our house, children filling the screens of our phones, the delays in both speaking and hearing. The birthdays as we sang into the wires, the dark days at the end of January when we might have said to ourselves, Let’s go to Portugal.

And what is coming? We are hoping to see our children this summer. We will be our small village, a fire for the evenings, swims in early morning before the crowds arrive, talking late into the night while the stars fill the sky. Will I remember how it feels to hold a child on my lap, will the slight panic I feel now when I see someone approach me in a public place, before I recognize their eyes, their voice, will that panic disappear as I realize it’s an old friend? The other day, shopping, someone stopped me and for a minute I wanted to run away until I realized it was a woman I’ve known for more than 30 years. I knew it was you by your eyes, she said, but I didn’t recognize her until I heard her say her name. Say her name. Say yours, mine. We haven’t lost those. Not yet.

John’s had an invitation to launch the book of his poems recently translated into Czech. Where? In Ostrava, a city we loved when we visited in 2012. Will it be safe to travel in October, will a man with two new hips but a damaged foot step off the airplane to read his poems in English while the wonderful young man who translated them reads them in Czech, the languages balancing in the air like the windchimes the book is named for? Will we leave, will we return, will the borders graciously open, will I stop waking in the night in panic, sleep deeply again, set the table for 12. Or 18.

On Wednesday, late afternoon, I was walking around a corner of the upper deck to come in after planting out yet more tomatoes (and honestly, if you live near me, please take a few plants?), and I stopped to look west. Everything in bloom, the robins just resuming their beautiful chorus, begun at dawn, and the hummingbirds darting into the orchid cactii spilling out of their hanging pots. There is this. Still this.

 

corner

          Here is the puffed world expansive

as the air come sidling, glancing
home to itself at a porch corner

thinly, briefly, just under the eaves.

                   –from “Wind Chime”, by John Pass

tous les jours

1.

You sit with your coffee, listening, listening, and what you thought was a warbler singing was the wind chimes turning in the morning air.

2.

Yesterday, driving down the Coast, you saw a man sitting in the trees quite close to your house. Returning, hours later, you saw him in a different place, sitting back against a huge duffle bag. He was no one you knew. You woke in the night from a dream, barely a dream, in which he was shining a flashlight into your bedroom, and it was like the light coming on 3 nights ago when a bear was breaking into the compost box near the motion light mounted on the printshop, and when you came out next morning, the bear’s paws were printed in mud on the car door. This morning, what will you find by the window?

3.

Your computer died a quiet death. When you walk by your study, there’s a space on the desk where it used to wait, tiny ikons on top, a shell, a fragment of lapis lacedamonius your daughter brought you from the Peloponnese on its surface.

“If we return to the old home as to a nest…” (Bachelard)

may 7

This is the wisteria over the cedar beam milled from a tree taken down more than a decade ago, replacing a beam that rotted over time. In a few days the wisteria will be fully in bloom, a moment I look forward to every year, and have since we first planted the it, a gift from John’s mum nearly 40 springs ago. She gave us two, which have become many; we have three growing on various places and have rooted strands for others, most recently the lifeguard at the pool where we swim 3 times a week. The wisteria traveled to Canada in John’s mum’s suitcase, rooted from her own mother’s vine in Suffolk. For nearly 40 years I’ve come up our driveway to see the wisteria blooming in May and each time I’ve felt overcome with its beauty. It receives almost no care. It doesn’t want any. John prunes the long strands back to the 4th bud as his mother showed him and that’s it. For 5 or 6 years robins nested at the western edge of the beam where the wisteria meets a New Dawn rose, a little haven under the eaves, until the little haven was discovered by a weasel who raided the nest of its 3 blue eggs, eating them on the laundry stoop and leaving the shells as the robins shrieked from nearby lilacs. I miss the robins but now that we have Winter the cat, it’s best that they nest somewhere else. A few times they nested in the little elbow of the downspout on the printshop. Those were the years we were lucky enough to see the young fly. I wrote about the robins, the nests in the downspout and the wisteria, in my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, featured on its publisher’s page today with other books about the natural world:

So now it’s back to the downspout and the mother is one that nest as I write. I loved watching her prepare the nest back in April. There had been one there in the past and I know that sometimes robins simply build on top of an old one but that earlier nest had fallen, a perfect construction of woven twigs and moss, held together with mud, and then lined with grass. The new nest took a few days to build and, at the end, the bird crouched in it and plumped out her body, turning as she did so. This formed a cup to the dimensions of her body. She carried wisps of grass to it and then I think she laid her eggs, one a day for three days.
This time around–it’s early July–she simply reoccupied the nest that she had used in April, bringing a little fresh grass for her new family. If we get too near, she glides out and is back again before we know it. I love to hear her mate singing morning, noon, and night, the long rising and falling notes clear and bright.
Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family–three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.”*

As I write now, robins are plucking soft lichen from a cascara tree beyond my study window. It does go on, the work of mothers and fathers, nest-building, nurture, and the beautiful opening of the wisteria blossoms on a beam across the patio, both a threshold for those coming to our house and for those leaving.

*This little quoted passage is from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

4 sentences, one leading to another

today's lizard

1.

Every year they sun themselves on warm moss and rocks, every year they gaze into far space, their secrets intact, the way they can release their tails to distract predators, the way the females carry the unborn over a summer, their own bodies cumbersome with the weight, and how I am taken back, back, to a place on Moss Rocks in Fairfield where I was sitting in dry grass and where I saw one come onto the rocks to bask and look around, not seeing me there, where I am still sitting, waiting.

2.

Waiting for the coffee to finish pouring through, I looked through the kitchen window and saw a single chestnut-backed chickadee hop onto the table on the patio, a tuft of dryer lint in its beak.

4.

In its beak, a dead junco, and if I hadn’t seen the raven flying down off the upper deck where the bird had been left by Winter, if I hadn’t heard the raven a few minutes earlier tapping with its feet and hopping so that I thought someone was up there, sweeping or moving pots, if I hadn’t seen the raven flying off with the bird, perhaps to its nest where its own young were waiting, then I wouldn’t have known that the wing that fell from its beak wasn’t a leaf, a dead leaf from the arbutus, the one where the tanagers pause, though I haven’t seen one lately.

3.

Lately my dreams have been the kind where I dream, dream deeply and vividly, of people I’ve known and lost, and then when I wake, I want to enter the dream again, better-prepared to tell them what they meant to me then, what they mean to me now, and to bring them gifts I wish I’d thought to offer when we’d talk casually on the street or at a party or sitting with me quietly in their house or in mine.

“But tell of days in goodness spent…”

Inside, near the fire, waiting for it to be warm enough to go outside to do some garden work, and in the meantime I somehow found myself listening to this. Marianne Faithfull, reading Byron, from her new cd. I said to John, What a wonderful thing to be at a point in your life when you can do something like this, unapologetically, and so beautifully. To say the old poems with ethereal music to showcase your voice. Last night I dreamed of my old mentor, Robin Skelton, dreamed we were both at an spring event, and I saw him across the hall with Sylvia, and thought, How can I go to greet them, having not been in contact with them all these years? (He died in 1997.) He once told me he’d met Marianne Faithfull in Dublin and how beautiful she was, how fragile. I think she was just out of rehab. And all these years later, her gorgeous voice, her perfect sense of timing, of phrasing. If I’d known about this recording earlier, I’d have found a way in the dream to put it into Robin’s hand. I imagine him listening, maybe with a glass of Jameson whiskey, saying, Jesus, the way he said it when he was overwhelmed. As I was overwhelmed, just now, listening.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent…

gravity, infinity

infinity

When I came up from the garden a few minutes ago, intending to sit in the greenhouse for a few minutes, I found that John got there first. He was in the blue chair by the door, smiling. It’s quite cool here today, though there was sun earlier, nothing like the summery weather last week, and when I went out to open the vent and door after lunch, it was 32 degrees inside the closed greenhouse. A few minutes ago? 22. The fluctuations are so interesting. It’s often 10 first thing in the morning and it’s been as warm as high 40s. The plants are thriving. I have a tub of water in one corner and I like walking around to mist or water the flats of seedlings, the pots of salad greens, the beans.

Anyway, he’d got there first. Why didn’t we build this years ago, he wondered. We’d often talked about a greenhouse but somehow time was consumed by other work. Or travel. Or just the dailiness that was different from the dailiness now. (I think our house was cleaner when we knew people would be coming for meals or to stay for a few days.) Why didn’t we. I thought about it for a minute or two and replied, We didn’t need it then. He looked quizzical. But what I meant was, I at least didn’t need something to devote myself to quite so strenuously. We were seeing our friends regularly, we were flying to Europe for work and/or pleasure (and honestly, the work part was pure pleasure too), to the cities where our children live. We were saying one day, Let’s do a little roadtrip, and a day later we were driving to Lillooet just for the pleasure of the Fraser River at that place, or to the Nicola Valley for its memories and the scent of sage, or to Grand Forks for borscht, taking the Bridesville-Rock Creek crescent this time of year for the wildflowers and yellow-headed blackbirds on a particular pond. There was no fear of this virus or any other one.

This year I felt sort of desperate. After I finished the revisions for Blue Portugal in March, I was sad for all the things I loved and which seemed so remote from me. Even the grandparents I wrote about, long dead, seemed even farther away in time and place. While I was working on the essays, I could look forward every morning to spending time in Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and other places where some of my ancestors lived. I was on and in the rivers I’ve always been drawn to. I was walking with my children in their cities or here. Most days I could remind myself of how lucky I am in the larger scheme of things and I know this, I do. But knowing isn’t always a solace.

Yesterday I had my first vaccination, something I’ve looked forward to for ages, waiting for my age group to be eligible. I wore a dress, tights, all my silver and turquoise bracelets (there are many!), and I took a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates to give to the woman who injected me. She was surprised and I saw tears briefly well up in her eyes. After I received my shot, I sat in the row of spaced chairs set around the perimeter of the hall where we were asked to wait for 15 minutes to ensure we weren’t going to have a reaction to the vaccine. People were sitting quietly. I was too but inside I was euphoric. It felt like something was actually shifting. I know of course that this isn’t the end of the virus and that we will never return to what we knew as normal. I suspect I will never walk through an airport again without wearing a mask. Will never feel comfortable in a market aisle with other people. But as I sat in the chair, I was elated. It’s the way I feel when I am in my little greenhouse among the plants. There’s hope in vaccinations and hope in green seedlings.

Late morning our Edmonton grandson phoned for a story. His grandfather read him Imagine A Night, the most stunning book about imagination and the kind of magic ordinary life can aspire to. Henry’s response was to talk about gravity and black holes. He’s 4. His father is a mathematician and his mum, a physicist, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was so lovely to hear him find the words to explain gravity (in response to one of the illustrations) and then to riff on space, black holes, and how his favourite hockey team is the Winnipeg Jets because of their symbol. I don’t think symbol was a word I knew at 4. After lunch, his 5 year old cousin in Ottawa called for a story too. We’ve been reading Iron Hans and so we continued with that and he very adroitly recounted the story so far when I asked him where we’d left off. His grandad asked him what he knew about gravity and wow, he had the whole concept as clear in his mind as anything. And infinity (because his dad had just given him a badge with the infinity symbol on it) — he told us about numbers and lines without beginnings or ends and all about the number googol: a one with a hundred zeros after it, named by the 9 year old nephew of an American mathematician. He was so excited to tell us about this number and how it was almost infinite.

In the greenhouse there is no virus. There is no danger. In my mind as I moved a tray of peas out to harden off, I was thinking of two small boys held to earth by its own dependable pull, held to us by something as mysterious, and how much I hope they can visit this summer for more discussions about timely subjects, stars, little frogs, the hidden places where the lizards live under the rocks, and how floating in a lake might be the same as, or different from, floating in space.

quotidian: Fair Ellen, maiden hair, Triomphe de Farcy

cuttings

1.

Bringing geraniums out of the sunroom, the ordinary ones, the scented ones, and cutting back their winter legginess. Cutting back, snipping the ends of stems, and putting them in earth. Fair Ellen, Skeleton Rose, Prince of Orange, Pink Champagne, Old Spice, Rober’s Lemon Rose, Citronella, their names like a medieval poem, singing their way into being. Opening the door of the greenhouse, I am transported to summers past when pots of geraniums lined the stairs and those leaving and those arriving brushed against them. Lemons and roses and deep oak woods, orangeries in far lands, the small flowers in lush leaves. Fair Ellen, Grey Lady Plymouth, Rose of Bengal…

hart's tongue

2.

Bowls of ferns by the front door, forgotten under the eaves for a week or so. When I bring them water, I see the new growth. Maiden hair in its nest of old stems, hart’s tongue scrolling to the light, spiny woodfern, green spleenwort, and below them, in a shady area, lady fern, sword ferns where tiny tree frogs perched last summer.

beans

3.

Open the greenhouse door! 52 tomato plants*, all named, Ancho peppers and Arbequina olives, eggplants, a bougainvillea, pots of salad greens, lilies, and look, the beans are all sprouting—the Triomphe de Farcy, Santa Annas, Hildas, and for shelling, the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

*if you live on the Sechelt Peninsula and want a couple of tomato plants, let me know?