posts

a day beginning with mergansers, with a bow to Du Fu

1.

morning mergansers

We didn’t expect to see anyone at the lake this morning, even though we went later than usual (because it was grey and cool). But a merganser just at where the water meets the sand and then another and another until there were 11. As we approached, they swam out, muttering a little, and then they drifted around the point. As I swam, there were small feathers on the surface of the lake, and still the shadows of mergansers as I moved through the water. The last day of August, water green with cedar light, a few feathers drifting, my arms muscular from a summer of swimming, and feet accustomed to the firm sand coming out. The seasons have their own memory of the lake: the year it froze in January, the return of the swallows in April, a canoe edging onto the rocks of the island in July, the cutthroat rising and entering the creek in October,

In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.

2.

monday's pie

If you were dreaming of pie, I told John as he prepared to head out to split firewood, well, you’re lucky because everything that could have gone wrong with the pie we are taking to friends tomorrow went wrong so I had to bake another. We’ll eat the failure after dinner tonight. Cutleaf blackberries, Merton Beauty apples, pastry too brown to give to anyone else. We will eat the one with two coyotes, faces to the stars, and a cascade of those around the edges, and our friends will cut the one with fish swimming head to tail, a gathering of stars in the centre.

The fish and dragons are still and silent, the autumn river cold,
A peaceful life in my homeland always in my thoughts.

 

3.at bukovets

Between the swim and the pie, I tried to figure out how to prepare an extended list of citations for a collection of my essays. Or rather I tried to figure out how to format the whole thing properly. The fonts clashed, the numerals were stubborn and wouldn’t accept the size I wanted for them, and I kept making sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything. I’m sure I did. I’d rather sit at my desk and listen to the maul splitting the dry fir, listen for the sound of fir cones tossed from the trees by squirrels beginning their hoards for winter. I’d rather remember how it felt to sit on lizhnyk in a place I never knew existed a year ago but now can’t stop thinking about, a ridge of mountain running the whole distance from my grandfather’s village in Bukovyna to my grandmother’s house in Moravia, a line connecting them before they knew each other. And how a century later I would look beyond and beyond, the Rybnytsia and the black Cheremosh rivers dividing in the mist, while musicians urged us to dance, drink a glass of horilka flavoured with mountain ginseng, because tomorrow, who knows what may come.

All day I sit by the river in my tower on the green hill.

quotidian: Sunday morning, with thanks to Wallace Stevens

Note before reading: all morning I’ve been thinking it’s Sunday but it’s not! Not yet. Either I’m ahead of myself or behind or maybe time doesn’t matter at all.
 green roof
1. The French cloth has been folded and brought inside so that you’d never know that we actually had friends come the other evening for a distanced glass of wine with dessert. We sat out under the green roof, eating almond cake flavoured with zest from our last Meyer lemon, taking up a conversation that began 35 years ago either here or at their home on Oyster Bay or both places. A tree frog chirped from somewhere in the grape vine above us and there were hummingbirds in the fuchsia, a chickadee stepping over the lattice. When it was time for the evening to end, one friend asked, Were those swallows or bats gliding through the sky just as the sun set? And it was either, or both.
                                               …evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
plums
2. They brought a basket of plums and later this morning I’ll pit them and sugar them so they can sit overnight, soaking up the sweetness and the warmth of a vanilla bean; tomorrow I’ll make the jam from the Pays Basque to have in winter on toast or with sharp cheese, the scent of late summer rising from each jar as it’s opened.
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
4 trunks
3. As I swam at 9 a.m., I realized that all summer the cedars have been my guides. Every morning from June until late September I begin at one end of the beach, using the four trees growing from a single root system as a starting point, and I stroke to the other end, maybe 60 meters, to where young cedars overhang the water. On these late summer mornings, there’s a patch of sunlight there where tiny grey flies dance on the surface of the water. I turn and return, watching for the cedars, turn and return, thinking about the months ahead, the dark months, the quiet nights, turn and return 10 times, the water cooler now, and bird tracks waiting to lead me out.
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer…

letter from a summer kitchen

peachy

As soon as I heard that Olia Hercules was publishing Summer Kitchens: Recipes and Reminiscences from Every Corner of Ukraine this spring, I asked our local bookseller to order me a copy. It arrived a few weeks ago but somehow I didn’t have time to open it and savour the recipes and the photographs.  But in the past three days, I’ve read the book cover to cover and although I have a few small quibbles—the notes for making uzvar, for example, have been cut short—I love this joyous testament to tradition and making the most of what one has at hand. To my delight, there’s a whole section titled “Summer kitchen memories”: Hercules appealed to Ukrainians from everywhere to send their experiences of this lovely phenomenon: a rustic building set apart from the main house, meant for preserving and social activity centered on food. These are small essays in themselves: “A secret attic and the foam from the jam pan”; “Homemade butter and dried apples”; and the gorgeous “Rhubarb buns and hailstorms”.

This time last year I was preparing for a trip to Ukraine with my husband and my daughter. We chose a company specializing in small cultural tours because honestly? I felt out of my comfort zone without any Ukrainian and unsure of whether I’d feel ok with renting a car and driving the rough roads in search of my grandfather’s village. I’ve never been on any kind of tour before but this one was stellar. There were just 7 of us and most of the time we were driven in a van by Roman, who was flexible and kind of unflappable. Our guide, Snizhana, was lovely and also unflappable. When 8 members of my grandfather’s family turned up at our hotel to meet me, she spent hours with us, helping us to make family trees to determine just how we were related. We made a video call to Forrest in Ottawa (also unflappable) to ask for some information I knew he had at his end. But what I really wanted to say here was that Roman drove us daily for 4 days up and down a steep road in the Carpathians to our hotel and we passed a couple of farms and there was a smell in the air, like wine-y fruit, like smoke, like summer becoming autumn, and one morning at breakfast, there was a jug of something called uzvar and it tasted like that smell. Earthy and smoky and I couldn’t get enough of it. The recipe is in Summer Kitchens.  A dried fruit infused drink made with pears or apples or cherries (or all three, with plums maybe), and in this book there’s even a recipe for how to dry the fruit (which would have been dried and smoked in the wood-fired masonry oven called a pich) in a warming oven, then smoke it on a barbecue with fruitwood chips. For the past day or two I’ve been wondering what to do with the 60 pounds of Merton Beauties John picked the other day, an apple with a spicy pear-ish edge to its flavour, and now? I’m going to dry some and make uzvar.

uzvar

I realize too that the farms on that steep road had summer kitchens. The families were sitting under trees at wooden tables and chimneys jutted from small buildings near the main house. We’d drive up or drive down and I’d press my face to the window by my seat, wanting to know everything about their lives because I felt that I might find myself there, another version of myself, the granddaughter of a man who stayed and married and who knew what to do with the bushels of pears and cucumbers. A woman knew how to make fresh cheese and horseradish horilka and who would take apples to the market to sell from a basket at her feet.

Today in my summer kitchen I made 3 peach pies (unbaked) for the freezer with some of the 20 pound case I got in Sechelt the other day, I sliced and froze 8 pounds more of the peaches to wait in ziplock bags for a winter dessert, and I made a double batch of pesto, also for the freezer. I don’t have a pich but I do have a maple worktable and lots of light and the otherworldly voice of Rhiannon Giddens to make the work go well.

On that road in Ukraine, the air held the smoke of fires preserving fruit for winter and this book holds that too. And so much more. Recipes for varenyky stuffed with berries or homemade cheese, for kvas and borsch (with duck and smoked pears), for sourdough breads brushed with garlic oil. And I’ll remember this man who stopped so we could stroke his gentle horse’s face.

P1140291

In an essay I wrote about traveling to Ukraine, I used brief passages from folk poems. This one spoke to me so deeply:

My dear mother, what will happen to me if I die in a foreign land?
Well, my dearest, you will be buried by other people.

But they would still be mine, wouldn’t they? The women in their summer kitchens, fermenting tomatoes in big jars, the children gathering windfalls, the dogs asleep in the dust.

redux: September song, with boom box

I know it’s not September yet but it’s in the air. And during this morning’s swim, in water a little cooler than I like it, I thought of John Berger, swimming, his “texts in a wordless language”, and I remembered this post from early last September.

________________________________________________

As we were walking down to the lake this morning, to the area where we swim most days before the beach-goers arrive, we could see a young couple just coming out of the water. You beat us to it, I told them, and the woman said quietly, It’s beautiful. They both had the look. I know it. The way you feel after a swim in water that is full of weather somehow, lit green by sun and reflected cedars, pierced with dragonflies, shadowed by the mountain we live under, and wrinkled by light air movement this morning. You are never more yourself but you don’t even begin to think that while you are there. For a few moments, there was the sound of a boom box somewhere and then it was replaced by a loon warbling near the little islands half-way across the lake.

(Yesterday, a video of my Edmonton grandchildren showed them clutching new music boxes, exactly like the one I have on my desk, the one that plays Für Elise, that I bought at Mouat’s store on Salt Spring Island a few years ago, and my granddaughter told us proudly that she has a boom box. She turned the handle and across the mountains I heard the faint and familiar notes of Beethoven.)

grandma's boom box

I finished reading John Berger’s Confabulations last night. In the essay “On Vigilance”, he wrote about swimming. He is in a pool, doing lengths, and he watches a tree he can see through the glass walls surrounding the pools. It’s a maple. Drawing it later, he realizes that what he has made is a text, “…a text of a silver maple tree.” I think we are always wanting a code for the moments of our lives that are numinous. I swim. I try to tell you how it feels to be in a lake made of weather, to come out the water with the muscular memory of it on my legs and my shoulders, to carry its scent home with me so that later in the day I stop, touch my hair, realize that I can smell the lake in the braid on my back.

When I was a child, my family camped on St. Mary’s Lake on Salt Spring Island. I lived in the water. It was green, it was light-filled, it held a girl’s body as tenderly as a mother cradles a baby before sleep. When I bought the music box in a store we’d visit on those camping trips so that my father could pick up fishing lures or kerosene, I knew I had found part of the code of those summers. How the canvas smelled when we woke to sun filtering through the trees around our campsite, the sticky sap on our fingers when we brought wood for the fire, the sound of my mother scraping burned fish off the old iron skillet.

Such texts belong to a wordless language which we have been reading since early childhood, but which I cannot name.
— from “On Vigilance”

the scent of apples

merton beauties

Some mornings, I use Virginia Woolf’s diaries as a form of divination. I’ve been reading her since I was 16 (that’s nearly 50 years!) and I return to her diaries over and over for a glimpse of her mind at work. Some mornings, I dip in to see what she was thinking around this time of year. I suspect I’ve posted this before but here’s what she was writing in late August, 1930, about The Waves, perhaps my favourite of her books.

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I finished writing a novella loosely based on Mrs. Dalloway. I loved working on it, creating an ideal day (which of course contained a lot of history) in the life of the narrator Alice and her family, who are gathered for a party. It will be a final party for reasons known only to Alice and her husband Nick. It’s every party we’ve ever had in high summer, the table laid with the best crockery and silver, wine chilling in the big galvanized wash tub, salmon on the barbecue, jugs of flowers at every turn, someone whipping cream for the blackberry pies, and….see what happened there? I gave away the story’s source. And that might be the problem with this particular novella. Too much of us, not enough fiction. Though there is certainly fiction in it. The house has more bedrooms than ours, the family has one more child than we do (and the children are composites, they’re not equivalents), and when the former friend comes up the driveway carrying a knife, well, maybe she’s fictional too.

Right now it feels like something to tuck away in a drawer, maybe forever. Some of the people I was commemorating in the novella are dead and some aren’t. Some never existed in the first place. But given what’s happened with the world and how we don’t know how our lives will unfold in the mysterious future that we hope is still possible, I’m very happy to have written it. There are soliloquies in it, cello solos, a series of calls and responses. The writing of it felt very much like an opportunity and yes, a failure in some ways. I’d hoped for more originality, more depth to the actual work. I had so much to say and I wonder why I didn’t manage to say it all.

In the meantime, summer is almost over. This morning, walking into the lake for our swim, we noticed bear tracks in the sand. I’d better pick the apples when we get back, John said, and he did. Exactly 60 pounds of Merton Beauties, from a small tree he thinned by a third when the little apples were forming. Whatever else the unfolding future holds, there will be pies and crumbles and French apple cake flavoured with rum. In the Before Times, these would have been desserts for parties, served on the plates John’s family brought from England in 1953, with the little silver dessert forks. People would laugh and eat and not mind how close they were sitting to their neighbour. We’d hug (hug!) at the end of the evening and walk our guests to their cars under stars so beautiful I’d dream of them.

Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

90 years ago, Virginia Woolf was finishing a book and I think of her so often, her troubled and radiant life. I’m sitting at my desk, with the scent of apples finding their way to me, grateful to have opened her diary for this message about doing what we need to do.

Bluets, or the radiant days

board

A little more than a week ago, we spent time with part of our family in country we’ve loved forever. We stayed at Lac Le Jeune and we ventured out each day to swim in Nicola Lake (where we camped when our children were young, every summer, and where I began to realize that strands of landscape, history, and the scales of pine cones could be bound together as essays, the ones I first wrote in Red Laredo Boots and the ones I am still writing) or to explore the old part of Kamloops and swim (briefly) in the Thompson River. We would have done yet another familiar thing—lunch at the Quilchena Hotel, then a poke through the old store there, where I did finally buy the boots longed for in the title essay of Red Laredo Boots after receiving exactly the amount they cost in payment for another essay in the collection—but the hotel is closed because of the pandemic.

boots

At Nicola Lake, I was swimming along the ropes delineating the safe area, when I noticed that every cork bobber had damselflies on it. Sometimes two, or more. They were so delicate and beautiful, the blue of them not quite the colour of the sky and certainly not the tea-colour of the lake, but an ethereal aqua. I went back to shore and told John. So he swam out to see them too. At times like that, I realize how little I know about bugs in general and damselflies in particular. The field-guide I had with me told me that these were almost certainly American bluets. That this genus, Enallagma, contains most of the damselflies in our area. that identification of the seven species we’re most likely to see isn’t easy for someone like me, a non-specialist, and that the mating damselflies remain connected until the female oviposits on the stems of the rushes and the resulting offspring hang around the submerged plant matter for the small invertebrates swimming near.

two

Do I need to know the species? No. The names of the possibilities are like a summer poem: Northern Bluet, Tule Bluet, Boreal Bluet, Familiar Bluet, Alkali Bluet, Marsh Bluet, Hagen’s Bluet. Knowing this, and that they’ve been around for 250 million years, and that they graced the cork bobbers while I swam, looking back at my own beautiful family on the shore, was enough. And while we swam and looked at bluets, an archaeological team was walking the sand, in search of remnants of tool production, was measuring the remains of kikuli depressions in the grass between the change rooms and the beach, and an eagle kept passing over the area, back and forth, flying so low I could see its empty beak. A boy stretched out in grass at a marmot hole and the air was dry and fragrant with pine sap. For a moment I couldn’t tell if the boy in the water with the boogie board was my grandson or his father, 35 years ago, if the girl stretched out on a towel was my granddaughter or her aunty, also blond and eager to swim, whether the young woman alone under the pine was the mother of my grandchildren or myself, longing for a quiet moment to think and remember. Boreal Blue, Familiar Bluet, stitching the years together.

cristen

 

“So I’m just looking for a sign.” (Eliza Gilkyson)

single

 

I am sitting at my desk looking out at the swirling white butterflies on the flowers and the scraps of arbutus bark falling in the breeze. There is a late summer softness to the light, the air, and even the water this morning felt velvety as I swam back and forth, parallel (mostly) to the shore. A few feathers on the surface, a few leaves. In these soft hours, you could almost forget that these are such difficult times in so many ways, for so many of us.

Just now I heard a song on satellite radio—I like folk roots when I’m cleaning and it’s that kind of day: washing kitchen floor, sorting laundry, wiping surfaces with grapefruit cleaner—so anyway, a song that I found myself listening to because it was surely Eliza Gilkyson? And was she quoting Robert Frost? Yes, and yes. It turns out she has a new album, 2020 (and isn’t that inspired?), and now I’ve heard several of the cuts and I have to say that she’s worth listening to again. (I’ve always thought her song, “The Party’s Over”, was a fiercely perfect comment on my generation’s complicity in peak capitalism.)

“I worry about us having disaster fatigue and being depressed and feeling hopeless, so I think my job is to remind people to stay sentient, stay aware and continue to gather and work through the emotions of this volatile time period and keep finding a grounded place.” –from an interview in Billboard.

So soft air, Eliza Gilkyson, and the beauty of tree frogs everywhere, even one chirping a rain song on the front deck, tucked into the grapevines knitted over the lattice. A day to try to do an accumulation of chores and to listen to music while doing them. And listening, I am hoping for a message to soothe my anxiety and fears for all of us. I’d like to share this interview about my papers now settled in happily at the University of Victoria’s Special Collections. If you read it, you’ll understand why that particular collection is the perfect place for my boxes of drafts, correspondence, and assorted ephemera. A homecoming in many ways, and a sense that the years have not been wasted. I was young in that place, opening boxes of newly-arrived papers from poets when I was trying to find my own voice as a poet, and I hope that someone else will have the same experience with my own materials.

frog2

I’ve been hoping there’ll be some way through
And all of our loved ones will be fine
No one knows what it’ll come down to
So I’m just looking for a sign.

Me too. Looking for a sign.

a set of quotidian lines

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

linen roses

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

yoga

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

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

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

old rapture: a spiral

memory game

Will another novel ever swim up? If so, how? The only hint I have towards it is that it’s to be dialogue: and poetry: and prose; all quite distinct. No more long closely written books. But I have no impulse; and shall wait; and shan’t mind if the impulse never formulates; though I suspect one of these days I will get that old rapture.

—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Friday, August 6th, 1937.

The other day, as we drove home from a few days in the Interior, John asked me if I had a new book in mind. A good question. I finished two manuscripts this winter and spring: a novella, The Occasions (a loose homage to Mrs. Dalloway); and Blue Portugal, a collection of 10 essays. The last ten years have been quite productive for me in that I had work I wanted to do and I had time. I published my memoir in essays, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees in 2011, followed by two novellas (Patrin in 2015 and Winter Wren in 2016), a collection of essays called Euclid’s Orchard in 2017, and just this spring a novella, The Weight of the Heart. I think John’s accustomed to discovering I’m not in bed in the middle of the night because I’ve gone downstairs to work. It might be my favourite time: the house sleeping, the mystery of the dark trees beyond my window, owls calling deep in the woods, weasels at work in the eaves-troughs. I love the netted moon in the big firs and the promise of light as I head back to bed. He’s also accustomed to the cycle of joy and despair as I send out work and wait for responses because let’s face it, when you’re 65 and you aren’t writing best-seller material, agents and publishers aren’t exactly welcoming. Or at least most of them aren’t. The latter, I mean, because no agent will take me but some smaller publishers have accepted my quirky books with an enthusiasm I am grateful for.

So: a new book? I can’t say I know exactly what I have to do next but I have glimmers of that old rapture. When my grandsons were here from Ottawa, the older one (he is 4) kept picking things up from my desk and asking questions.

What’s this?
A barnacle.
What’s a barnacle?

And from there, we’d look it up, I’d tell him that barnacles grew on rocks, on whales, on shells, even the oyster shells we found north of Powell River while he was here. He wanted to look at my fossils, the horned corals from the mountains by the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the shell fossils from Sandcut Beach west of Sooke (the locus for Winter Wren). He wondered what a wishing stone was for. He wanted to know if he could take some of the bones on my desk home with him. When I was walking at Nicola Lake with my grandaughter, who is 6, she wanted to know if the squirrel racing up a tree with a pine cone was going to eat the whole cone so I showed her how to shake edible seeds from between the scales of a cone. We looked at the spirals formed by the bracts and I began to tell her about the Fibonacci sequence but then realized that her father (a mathematician) could do a much job of that than his mum, who still has dreams about failing high school math. (Last one two nights ago…)

The older grandchildren kept asking why. And why and why and why. It’s a good question. It’s one I ask myself. I ask myself why I’m drawn to spirals, why I am comforted by sewing them when I am making quilts, why I think of them as the perfect analogy for the writing I do, and how astonished I am to find them in so many places. This moon snail shell for example.

moon snail

It’s an example of a logarithmic spiral, also called the golden section spiral. Many organisms share this growth curve: snails, certain galaxies, those spirals evident in the bracts of pine cones, the seedheads of sunflowers, human embryos in utero (and the whorls on the scalp), and even well-constructed highway turns. On the other hand, the Archimedean spiral (the one I use when quilting) differs in that the turns of the curve maintain a constant distance in their progression. I don’t know that I could quilt a logarithmic spiral freehand but somehow the Archimedean one comes naturally to my hands, a form of meditation as I stitch my way across lengths of cotton and linen.

My grandchildren’s questions were spirals that led me inward, as though I was moving from the endpoint towards the starting point. From the sound of them asking back to the origins of our connection. Waves of sound, spiralling to their source.

Did you hear owls last night?
Maybe I did.
They were close!
How do you know?

I am not putting this clearly but maybe I’m beginning to thread the needles that will sew me into a pattern that might, if I’m lucky and I pay attention, become something.

What I want is a season of calm weather. Contemplation. I get this sometimes about 3 a.m. when I always wake, open my window and look at the sky over the apple trees. A tearing wind last night. Every sort of scenic effect—a prodigious toppling and clearing and massing, after the sunset that was so amazing L. made me come and look out of the bathroom window—a flurry of red clouds; hard;a water colour mass of purple and black, soft as a water ice; then hard slices of intense green stone; blue stone and a ripple of crimson light. No: that won’t convey it…

–Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Wednesday, August 17th, 1938

 

the symbol for infinity

jocko creek horses

About twenty-five miles from the town of Kamloops, following a progressively worse road into the hills, is Three Loon Lake. Between Kamloops and Three Loon Lake—which is one of several scattered lakes among the hills—folds of the high land rising and falling away disclose occasional ranch buildings. Some cattle graze and some sheep, domestically incongruous in these hills.

Every time I travel to those hills above Kamloops, both the ones rising and rising and eventually falling away again as you drop into the Nicola Valley and the ones Ethel Wilson was writing about in this passage from Swamp Angel, I’m grateful again that they have found their way into books. Every time we turn off the Coquihalla Highway onto Lac Le Jeune Road, it’s as though my heart opens wide. The lakes, when you come upon them, are cold and austere, fringed with tulé grass, aspens and lodge-pole pines providing shade. We spent four nights in a log cabin near Lac Le Jeune and I almost never took off my jacket. When we drove down for a picnic at Nicola Lake, where we camped for at least 15 summers with our children, it was 10 degrees warmer. These are beautiful landscapes, scented with sagebrush, pine sap (Ponderosas in the lower areas), and southernwood. Ethel and Wallace Wilson stayed at a fishing resort near where we stayed. They fly-fished from a small boat and enjoyed drinks on the porch of their little cabin. Ethel called the place her heart’s desire. I wondered if it might have been one of these?

lac le jeune resort

In my recent novella, The Weight of the Heart, the narrator drives up the Lac Le Jeune Road in search of Ethel Wilson. She has lunch at one of those ranches along the way, following its owner back after he has helped to jump-start her truck:

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.

When we drove the road towards Kamloops where we intended to swim in the Thompson River and watch two of our grandchildren play in the park on the river, I kept my eye out for the symbol for infinity, even though I knew the Two-Bit was my own invention. I saw it, though, in the haze of pollen on the long grass by the side of the road, the untidy osprey nest on a dead pine overlooking McConnell Lake, the sight of horses racing up some low hills. I saw it in the cartwheels my grandaughter was turning on the grass by the river and later in the woodsmoke of the fire we were invited to share by a pond while the children roasted marshmallows, their faces sticky and ecstatic.

I took a copy of The Weight of the Heart with me to Lac Le Jeune, intending to release it in the wild for someone to find in a ziplock bag on a stump or a bench near the water. But then as we were exploring the network of roads behind the lake, beyond the cabin where I imagined the Wilsons drinking their late-afternoon cocktail, I saw the most unlikely thing: a Little Free Library on the corner of a road into the woods.

little free library

A perfect place to release a book in search of Ethel Wilson’s heart’s desire (and my own), among daisies and willow.