redux: Talk to me of Mendocino

Note: yesterday I listened to this song as we drove down the Coast on errands and it reminded me of this post from last summer. Which is still true.

wild coast

Some days a song will find a way into your heart, into your soul, into everything you do, so that as you choose cheeses at the grocery store in Sechelt, you are humming it, in the library a woman looks at you in surprise because you’re singing quietly in the fiction stacks, and as you watered the tomatoes, late because of leaving early for errands down the Coast, you were singing not quite as quietly, moving the hose from one plant to the next.

In 2013, my mathematician-son spent the fall term at Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute as part of a cohort working on optimal transport. Why not come for a few days, he asked. His wife Cristen flew down several times — they had just bought a house in Edmonton and moved into it as he was packing his bags for Berkeley — and at one point Cristen’s parents went too. And in November we drove down the Interstate 5 as far as Portland and then headed over to the Pacific Coast Highway, a route we’d taken earlier in our separate lives, remembering it slightly differently, and eager to revisit. At one point I heard one of my favourite songs on the radio, Kate and Anna McGarrigle singing “Talk to Me of Mendocino”, and I was taken back to an earlier trip, in, oh, 1976, driving that coast highway with two friends. We went to Berkeley on that trip too and camped at Big Sur and I felt I was seeing a world so filled with promise that I remember crying in my bunk at night (we’d borrowed my dad’s little camper for the trip).

We drove, in 2013, through a storm and spent our second night of travel in Coos Bay where I watched a YouTube of the McGarrigles, looking out the window at huge raindrops coursing down the glass.

And it’s on to Southbend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remain

We didn’t end up in Mendocino. Tired of driving through rain and wind on the Oregon Coast, we turned off to Ferndale instead. But the song was in my mind and I kept humming it as we drove to Berkeley.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”

Today, now, at home, I am remembering that trip, remembering how the woman I was then was also the girl 35 years earlier, longing and yearning, though I couldn’t have said what for exactly. When I was 21, it might have been love. When I was nearly 60, I wasn’t yearning for love but for some sense that everything I’d done with my life mattered; and I was yearning to see my son, who felt very far away, though by the time we were in Ferndale, it was only 262 miles, and we pulled into our little rented flat in time for an afternoon drink on the tiny balcony.

berkeley balcony

Brendan told us that Cristen was pregnant and the whole visit felt celebratory in the way a week can be when you know everything is changing and you are looking forward to stepping into a new world.

And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more
Talk to me of Mendocino, talk to me of Coos Bay, of Edmonton, of Victoria, of Ottawa and the Madawaska River, talk to me of any place in summer, with ocean winds and water to swim in, but don’t talk to me of forest fires and water shortages, I am tired to death of heat and drought, I am tired to death of the lonely places we were driven to during the last 18 months, the sad nights, the quiet (though I love quiet), the masks, the world’s terror which was also ours. Mine. Talk to me of  the campfire version of the song on the McGarrigle Hour, the cd I was listening to this morning when the song entered my system as sweetly as cool air on a warm evening. Talk to me, won’t you.

“I can hold aloft to the damaged planet.” (Sara Baume, from handiwork)


This is the indigo dye vat of a few years ago. I’m getting ready for another dye session, perhaps when my daughter visits in July. It’s a pull, a yearning. To prepare the materials, to mix the powders, to plunge tied bundles into the vat once, twice, four times. To unwrap and drape on the clothes line. A deeply satisfying thing, the creation of pattern on a plain surface, and then to stitch the finished cloth into something else, quilts mostly.


This weekend I read Sara Baume’s handiwork, a book about writing and making. Her particular handwork is the making of birds from plaster moulds. Photographs throughout the book show these elegant creations, painted and smooth. Accompanying the descriptions of working on them are meditations on bird migration, the importance of tools, the legacies of our parents and grandparents in our bodies and our daily work.

If my granddad was wood and my dad was iron, then what am I?

My father was a radar technician and a gunsmith. He had tools in his basement and he spent hours at his workbench, polishing the beautiful woods he used when he restored stocks or made new ones himself. I remember being about 10 years old and feeling drawn to his workbench, wanting desperately to make something myself. There were the chisels, the drillpress, the fragrant oils. My hands wanted to know how to hold them, how to smooth the wood and oil it and bring out its grain. My dad had the patience to take a radio apart and put it together again, to make a rowboat, to teach himself celestial navigation in his later years, but he didn’t have the patience to teach me how to use his tools. Did I ask? I don’t remember. But I remember watching him, wanting to know how things fit; I remember sitting on the basement stairs as he sharpened his chisels and knives, the sound of the whetstone, and the scent of the oil he used for honing. He wouldn’t have understood why I like indigo dye and the whole process of not knowing the results. That would have puzzled him. Sara’s dad was puzzled by her art school sculptures but he converted an old greenhouse into a studio for her. My dad was reluctant to share his typewriter, bought at Goodwill, and used to keep careful records of my older brother’s hockey team statistics.

Last night, reading handiwork, I heard loons down on Sakinaw Lake. It was a lonely sound but also self-contained and comforting. As I am self-contained, though lonely, when I dip my tied bundles into indigo dye on calm mornings. I felt that old compulsion: how could I make something to hold everything I knew, everything I loved, that would allow me to use my hands and follow their instinct, on paper, with cloth and thread. To include somehow the return of the tanagers, the first morning of birdsong, the high cry of snow geese flying south in autumn. The fish in Haskins Creek. The grace of swallows around me as I swim each morning. The kingfishers.

William Morris–artist, designer, writer, activist, socialist–agreed that hands know what they must do without instruction, that the objects shaped by their ancestor’s phalanxes and phalanges and metacarpals for thousands of years remain in the memory compartment of their tiny brains, in the same way as birds know which way to fly without being guided or following a plotted course, without a book that provides detailed drawings and plans with parts and kits to accompany it.

I put handiwork on the bed beside me last night and thought about how Sara Baume has written a book that isn’t one thing or another. It’s not a book of writing rules or etiquettes. You won’t learn how to shape a bird yourself using plaster and knives and paint. The photographs of birds held up, their beaks poignant, their paint glossy — what are they anyway? She doesn’t say.* This is a book about mysteries and an admirable attention to them. How a bird flies from islands off the Northumbrian coast to Antarctica, and back, adjusting its navigational compass to account for winds, and how somehow the act of making can echo that, pay homage to that.

The wonder and awe, the catharsis and reassurance–the guilty bliss– of a fresh small object placed into the world; some entirely unique, inimitable thing that didn’t exist just a couple of hours ago, and which I have brought into existence myself–alone and utterly. A trail of progress I can see; I can feel; I can place; I can move around in a shaft of light; I can hold aloft to the damaged planet.

Some days I think, Why bother? Why bother with writing books that get lost in the ebb and flow of the literary conversation, their voices a little quiet and timorous for these times? Or quilts, because honestly does anyone need another one in a world filled with stuff? But my hands need the work, my mind needs what happens when my hands find their way to loop and tie and dip and stitch. The way I find myself weeping when I see the cloth hanging on the clothesline, the books arriving in a courier’s van. See, you did this. It’s not quite what you meant to do (is it ever?) but you did this. On the cover of handiwork, a whole little flock of painted birds, ready to fly.


*Actually she does say. I didn’t see the note at the end of the book in which she lists the species. Not the pages so you sort of have to count and hope that you’ve actually found the hooded crow, the pied wagtail…

morning, sanctus

morning sanctus

This morning, swimming, I was trying to remember a poem I once knew (in part) by heart. In part, because it’s long, though the opening passage I once knew:

House, blue mountains, rain, surf stumbling on the reef.
House of life, house of childhood,
a shake and log shamble, windworn and storm white;
its desires and regrets a matter of moments
half-seen through another life. Even so
love was enormous in this secrecy.
The stars sang in the twilit garden;
morning was moonlight,
raspberries, wine clear as the wind and cold.

It’s from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”, by the late Charles Lillard, a very dear friend. He grew up mostly in Alaska, lived in Oregon, California, and on Vancouver Island for the last part of his life, husband to Rhonda Batchelor, father to Ben and Joanna, and friend to those of us lucky enough to know him. And he was the most generous friend. There aren’t many people you could think aloud to on a Monday morning phone call (we often had those, in the pre-internet days) that you were trying to figure out train schedules through Spences Bridge in 1908 and on Wednesday there would be a box of materials delivered to the Greyhound bus shelter at Garden Bay Road with old train schedules, photographs, books and pamphlets you didn’t know you needed.

Quietly as one turns the pages of an old journal,
everything crouched in this now
waits for my fingers to lift the latch.

So this morning I was thinking of him, his poem, and I was listening to ravens croak back and forth to another from high trees on either end of the small beach where I was swimming. Charles could speak raven. Sometimes I can almost remember how to as well. This morning the ravens were talking about Charles, how they missed his laugh, his great heart, and how he would share the morning’s news with them. I do that too. As I swam the back stroke from the cedars growing over the water to the three cedars growing from the same roots–my sentinels–I klooked to the one raven nearest me. I made the tok-tok sound that always stops their own muttering as they listen, tilting their heads, curious. One swooped down. For a moment I thought it was Charles, come back to talk a little about the years since he left us.

I could almost remember the poem. I remembered the ravens, the green water, the scent of cedar, and was that his voice in the trees, where sunlight was glowing as it came over the mountain’s shoulder, were those the last lines that the ravens were croaking, back and forth, the morning haunted by old friendships? Some of us live too long and some of us, not long enough. Poetry knows this on a June morning, my shadow entering the water ahead of me, lingering behind as I come out.

Out westward the surf washes across the Lord Luckies.
At Sitka the cathedral bells call out their prophecies.
Above these flames, above this crimson beach,
a shadow rises with the updraft: croanq, croanq, croang
the black sanctus rising into the morning sky.

Note: the lines of poetry are from Charles Lillard’s “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”. The entire poem can be found in Shadow Weather (Sono Nis Press, 1996.)

“little lanterns pierced with stars” (from Easthope, a work-in-progress)


They began walking to the pub at the very edge of the inlet on Saturday afternoons. A pint of beer, a glass of wine, a table by the window. Sometimes whales swam past. A humpback heading out to Agamemnon Channel or a pod of orcas chasing herring into Sechelt Inlet. Once Tessa and Marsh sat on the covered deck even though it was January, wearing mittens as they sipped their drinks, and watched orcas rush up to the tiny rocky island near the eastern shore and they realized the animals were dragging a seal down to tear apart in the water. That time, Marsh surprised Tessa by reciting a passage of poetry:

                             …how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.

     Marsh, what is that? — It’s Auden, from ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. I’ve always loved it for the way it tells us how things happen, really miraculous things, and hardly anyone notices. Like now. We just happened to look in the right direction to see whales throw themselves against rocks to capture a seal. And look around. We’re the only ones who did. When she looked, she saw one couple arguing, two twenty-somethings typing on their phones with their thumbs, and a group of guys by the pool table, laughing.

     After an hour or so of watching, they’d order supper.

     The tacos were really good—steelhead grilled and strewn with capers and crispy wonton; porkbelly with cabbage and chili pineapple salsa. There was thick chowder. Burgers you couldn’t eat without some of it falling down the front of your shirt. A musician from down the Coast played on those afternoons, into the evenings, and it was sweet to sit near the fire, listening to him sing old favourites and some of his own songs too. They learned to recognize the boats in the inlet, the ones used by people living off the grid in East Easthope, the prawn boats, the ones used by the people who owned islands or lodges, the crew boats, the fishing charters.

     And a tug would pass, hauling a barge of building materials, machines, tarped cargo that could be anything.

     –Want another?

     –No, I’m ok. But go ahead. I’m good to sit for awhile yet.

     Marsh walked across to the bar and waited while his glass was refilled. One of the young men who worked in the marina came in with an armload of logs and stacked them by the fireplace. Gulls swooped down to grab starfish exposed as the tide receded. So much was happening in the world. So much to be angry about, to fear, to obsess about during the daylight hours, scrolling through a news feed or listening to the news at 6. But here, on the edge of the peninsula, the mountains beyond soft with fog, you could forget that world and live deeply in this one. Two men struggled with a tote on the dock, trying to lift it onto the deck of a small sailboat. A woman sat on the deck of a converted wooden fishboat, reading – Tessa met her once in the store and learned she lived on the boat with her dog, following the route of Capi Blanchet and her kids in summers, a book Tessa loved. Susan said she’d tried a few ways of living and this was the one that suited her best. She cooked in a few camps when she needed money and she knew how to take her boat’s engine apart and put it back together. She was wearing bright red gumboots and her dog was stretched across her feet.

Ready to walk back?

After the first time, when they hadn’t realized how dark it would be on Maple Road and hadn’t brought a flashlight, stumbling down the Doriston Highway in utter blackness, they always remembered to take one. –Marsh, Sam told me his mum helped them pierce holes in a soup tin for the early walks to school on winter mornings. He said his sister had worked to make star shapes with a sharp nail and that hers was the best by far. Their mum saved candle stubs for their tins. Can you sort of see that? A group of kids walking a dark road swinging little lanterns pierced with stars?

deep water


At the Sechelt Library this week, I saw among the new books a novel called Holding Her Breath, by Eimear Ryan. The cover shows a swimmer in blue water. Ah, I thought: a book for me. Last night I read 82 pages and yes, it truly is a book for me. It’s set in Ireland. Beth, the young protagonist, is a competitive swimmer with a conflicted relationship with swimming, studying psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and an illustrious grandfather, whom she never knew because he died, a suicide, when her mother was still a child. The grandfather was a poet whose work continues to be taught in schools and universities. Beth is attracted to a postdoctoral research fellow specializing in the work of her grandfather. I love the section where she attends one of his lectures with her room-mate, listening to him discuss passages of her grandfather’s epic poem “Roslyn”.

“Isn’t Roslyn an imaginary place?” It’s a voice in the front row. The room animates with glances and affirming nods. This is what they were taught in secondary school, what they regurgitated in their exams.
“I don’t believe it is,” says Justin. “All Crowe’s poetry is rooted, specific. Even if he’s riffing on some mad star pattern, you can be sure he’s got a specific constellation in mind. When I was an undergrad, there was a rumour that the coordinates to Roslyn were encoded within the text itself. Now, I never did figure it out–but I bet you a hundred euro that Crowe is talking about a real place.”

When I was swimming in the lake a little earlier, I was thinking about the book. Last night I could have kept reading until I’d finished–the narrative is that compelling. But I wanted to savour it and so I put it aside. I suspect there will be a relationship between Beth and Justin and of course that will be problematic in many ways. There are boundaries — his, as an instructor; hers, as a possible access point for archival material thus far unavailable. (Justin has already visited Beth’s grandmother who guards her late husband’s materials fiercely.) I’m interested to see how Eimear Ryan navigates this fraught territory. I was reminded of my own university days, in the last century, when it was more common for certain territorial boundaries to be crossed. I’m not arguing that it was right. Times have changed in this respect, mostly for the better. I know there are always power imbalances but sometimes they’re less clear or quantifiable than we might imagine. From the time I was about 12, boys my own age were slightly nervous in my company. I was tall. I had what might be termed a “mature” figure. All through high school the boys I liked weren’t interested in me. I had a complicated relationship with my father, who loved me but who had no idea of how to parent a daughter with ideas of her own that were at odds with his. I had several high school teachers who helped me figure stuff out. How to think about the future, which in their opinion would be university. My parents had no idea how this worked but luckily I had good guides. One of them frequently gave me poetry books to read — Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath — and told me I could be a writer. (In later years, when I did publish books and gave poetry readings in Victoria, he was often in the front row, beaming.) And at university, I had some mentors who also provided guidance and support. In one or two cases, it could have gone further. I knew that. One man used to schedule our directed reading meetings in the faculty club and I suspect he wanted to give the impression that we were a number. We weren’t. But I had his support, his conviction that what I thought and wrote mattered deeply, and was I harmed by this slightly unbalanced situation? I don’t believe I was. I had affection for him, and respect, which continued long after I’d graduated. There was someone else who chose me as a sort of muse. Again, it was a relationship that appeared to be something that it wasn’t. I don’t regret it, exactly. I learned so much. I think he did too. And my house is filled with his paintings, some of them purchased by John and I, some of them brought as gifts to us and our children. I see his attentive eye in their composition, their colours, and if I’m the inspiration for some of them, what a gift to the aging woman I am now. These are the things I was thinking as I swam, provoked by reading Holding Her Breath last night, and maybe I’m entirely wrong, maybe this isn’t where the book is heading, but the combination of poetry and boundaries and swimming had me in the deep water of my own complicated past.


rain and old roses

blanc double coubert

I’ve always loved the old roses, the noisettes, the mosses, the varieties named and anonymous, the ones you see smothering trellises in abandoned gardens. When I was a teenager in Royal Oak, then a rural neighbourhood of Victoria, with many of the pioneer families still living in their original homes, I’d ride my horse along quiet roads on early summer morning and stop now and then to pick a rose growing over its fence or into a field. I remember this one, Rosa rugosa ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, a pure white beauty with an intense old-rose scent. In fall, its hips were deep scarlet against the dark green leaves. I found a plant of it at the farm and garden centre in Gibsons in late winter and for now I have it by the front door. For now, because I want to see how it will do with limited sunlight. For years a ‘New Dawn’ thrived there, grown from a cutting given me by a neighbour of my parents, a woman who knew so much about Royal Oak. Her son rented a house across the road, a house she told me was the oldest house in Saanich. I don’t know if that’s true. I tried asking an archivist years ago and he was dismissive. That road didn’t exist before the 50s, he insisted. But an earlier road existed there, called (I think) Colquitz Avenue. The man across the road, Bill Mahon, was the son of an orchard-growing family. The oldest house was behind his house, also old. In those years there were a number of orchards on Wilkinson Road and I believe descendents of the Quick family still owned the house built by William Quick in 1911 and the fields filled with daffodils in spring, where cattle grazed, and sometimes sheep.

The ‘New Dawn” is less enthusiastic about its location these days but another one, grown from a cutting from Edith Iglauer’s ‘New Dawn’, has established itself happily along a trellis and beam above our patio. It shares the beam with wisteria. Edith had cuttings of our wisteria, I remember, and she’d phone when it bloomed. Edith was Angelica’s first visitor when we brought her home from the hospital; she came for tea, with the gift of a harlequin bear who played Brahms’ lullaby, and the package was tied with ribbon and a single bud of ‘New Dawn’ which was exactly the colour of our new daughter’s shoulders. See what a complicated thing is memory? It holds roads, names, colours, what it felt like at night to walk back to my house from the oldest house in Saanich after babysitting for the family who lived there, where roses grew on Beaver Lake Road and on the corner of Glanford and Vanalman where the Ferrie sisters still raised chickens and where they’d gone out to dances at the Royal Oak Community Hall, built by local men, including William Quick, in their gum boots, carrying their dancing shoes to change into for the evening. They were old when I knew them. The trail that they took to the hall wound up the hill and through the orchards. They gave my mum cuttings of several old roses but somehow the plants were forgotten when my parents moved to an apartment towards the end of their lives. But I remember them, vivid pink, with a heady fragrance. They might have been ‘Reine de Violette’ — their petals were densely clustered and they were heavy-headed in rain.

A complicated thing. When I close my eyes, I can feel the sunlight on my back as I ride down Beaver Lake Road, my horse’s feet light on the pavement. My hand on his damp neck, the reins soft with dubbin. I don’t yet if the ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ will stay in the Chinese tub by the front door but every time I pass it this season, I will stop for a moment, remembering. I am walking home late from the oldest house, legs wet from the tall grass, the apple trees in bloom, and the Ferrie sisters laughing as they return from the dance.

old house on mahon property

“The boats knocking against the dock”: from a work-in-progress

boats in mist

Think of the houses in their clearing on the inlet, goats behind fences of wire and branches, broken sticks, think of hens pecking in the gardens put to bed for winter, only the cabbages left, the tall stems of brussels sprouts. Smoke rising from each chimney, a dog barking. Think of the children racing across the ground from the schoolhouse, racing home to warm biscuits, chores, homework at a kitchen table lit by kerosene lamps. In winter, they walked to school on dark mornings with candles carefully placed in perforated soup cans. Think of the mothers in their kitchens, making soup. Think of the eggs in bowls on the sills. Think of fish strung on a line in a grey board smokehouse, nets laid out on the rocks. The boats knocking against the docks. The sound of birds. Think of the rain. Could you paint that, do you think? She was asking herself and she knew the answer had to be yes.

“Swimming is like prayer” (Adam Zagajewski)


I’d spent the day lugging pots of soil in and out of the greenhouse. My arms were tired. The sun kept sliding behind clouds but when it was out, the day felt like a June day. So when John asked if I wanted to try the lake, I said, Why not? Two winters ago I tried to swim once a week in the lake, just to maintain my relationship with its water. I know that might sound strange but it’s living water. Swimming in it is like love, a relationship. During the darkest days of the pandemic, when we were isolated and John was recovering from a surgery gone sideways, I wanted the solace of lake water, even though I knew it would be cold. This winter I didn’t feel the same need for it. Three times a week I swam in the pool and although it’s not the same as lake swimming, it was enough. Enough for the cold days, the long weeks of wet days, the days after nights when I hardly slept. In February, when my Ottawa family was here, we went down to the lake for a quick swim. An immersion. The little boys played in the big pile of sand left on the shore and John and Manon talked at one of the picnic tables while Forrest and I plunged into the lake’s dreamy water. When we came out, we stood in sun that was almost warm.

summer in February

But sure, I said yesterday. Why not? A couple from Washington State was there with their son and the son and his mum had quick dips. John had a brief swim. I swam out beyond the rope you can see in the first photograph, and did a couple of laps, the ones I do in summer, my body so alive in the green water. And what is it? What is it about this living water that I am immediately home in it? A woman at the pool confessed that she is nervous about swimming in lakes or the ocean because of what she can’t see. But what you can’t see is the huge living body of water that holds you up, allows you its currents, its riffles, its history of trout, of kingfishers dipping their beaks, of mergansers and loons in the distance, of crayfish and sticklebacks, of freshwater clams, wild mint in the shallows, the shadows of swallows on the surface as they take insects in flight. Like a river or the ocean, it allows you a place in its living water, and now having entered again, my arms propelling me forward, hands meeting in front of me, then pushing out, a gesture of arrival, in sunlight and rain, I am home in my body within it.

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

                 –Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

there is sunlight this morning

roof 1

Sometimes I stop in the middle of a chore, in this case bringing up a planter of soil to transplant arugula thinnings into for the salad area around the corner from this photograph, and I see a moment that I need to soak up. A moment of calm, of beauty, two red chairs and a green one without its cushion, as though waiting for me to notice them, to sit for a while at the table and forget the troubled world. The troubled planet. A pot of scented geranium on the table, Prince of Orange, to replace the big one that didn’t overwinter well in the new greenhouse. Many roses just in bud.

roof 3

The corner I am calling Greece, for its tin of rosemary, its anemones, its Desert King fig (because the huge Brown Turkey growing up the side of the house produces figs that don’t reliably ripen here on the B.C. coast), its rose scented geraniums,

roof 4

and cistus dropping its bright petals. Mostly instead of sitting there I am planting squash, hunting slugs, preparing teepees for the beans (5 planted, one tray of seedlings just hardening off), filling big pots with soil for the peppers and eggplants in the greenhouse still. I am writing a novel. I am worrying about Ukraine. This morning photographs arrived of the family garden in my grandfather’s village where my newly-discovered relatives say, “We planted a garden in the spring, and now we hope to harvest in the fall. That’s how we live.” Their tomatoes are huge. Cherry trees and black currant bushes laden with fruit. Roses. And my cousin also said, “We have already finished the school year. The children completed it online because there is no bomb shelter in our school. There will be vacations soon.” My heart broke a little when I read that.

Sometimes I stop and sit in a red chair and just listen. Bees in the tomato flowers, the Madame Alfred Carriere roses, the tiny grape flowers. A robin ardently singing in the woods. Hummingbirds in the wisteria. The Fraser River is rising, rising. Russia is pulverizing whole cities. Along the highway below me, the Ministry of Transportation is still applying glyphosates to the orange hawkweed that the butterflies hover in. American families are posting photographs of their gun collections, vast arsenals set out on sundecks like mine, on kitchen floors, children proudly holding assault rifles and pistols. Today is the day I will tie up columbines, hoe the garlic and give the rows a drink of comfrey tea. There is sunlight this morning, the sound of loons, a brown and yellow garter snake sunning itself on the garden path.

roof 2

redux: green thoughts

Note: this was posted on June 2, 2018. This year the roses are still in bud (apart from Madame Alfred Carriere, who often blooms first, along with a few dog roses) and the honeysuckle I ponder over is not yet blooming but might well bury us in our beds, given its vigour.

abraham darby

One of my favourite garden books is Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s not a “how to” book but rather a series of brief essays on everything from artichokes to toads. The writing is beautifully crisp, the author opinionated, and there was so much I shared of her view of plants and their place in our lives. I loved her admission of smuggling special potatoes home from France. I don’t think I’ve ever returned from a trip without seeds or acorns or bits of this and that in my bag. I know some people highly disapprove but honestly how did you think potatoes got to North America? Or Europe? Or the roses your grandmother grew? Her tomatoes, the ones she insisted were the same ones her grandmother grew in Siberia, or Italy?

I’ve written before that some of my plants came from John’s mother (and from her mother, too, because John’s mum used to bring back cuttings and other plant materials from her annual trip to Suffolk). Our mint, our wisterias, and one of our honeysuckles, the lovely Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ (also known as late Dutch honeysuckle, and you can bet there’s a traveling story there…), some perennial geranium, Algerian iris, and so on. There was also a wonderful honeysuckle, L. japonica ‘Halliana’, that I loved. It was semi-evergreen here, with creamy blossoms turning yellow as they aged, and I swear they smelled of jasmine. We had it growing up the deck where we eat our summer meals and oh, after rain, the air was heaven. We had another plant of it too, growing up some lattice by our patio. And after ten or so years, both of those plants died. It was easy to root from cuttings. In fact, if I cut stems of it to have in jugs around the house, quite often they’d have roots by the time the flowers had finished. But I didn’t know the plants wouldn’t overwinter the winter they died so I hadn’t taken cuttings. I kept my eye out for new plants at the garden centres but never found one until the year before last. I planted it against one post of the pergola John built by the gate to the vegetable garden. The garden is fenced with 8-foot deer-proof mesh and I wanted something less forbidding as an entrance. Last year the honeysuckle bloomed but this year, oh man, it’s reaching for the stars.


But there’s something about it…the flowers are tinged with pink. So I think it must have been mislabeled. I think it’s L. periclymenum, the common European woodbine, and I believe one of the parents of ‘Serontina’. It smells nice—but not like jasmine. I’m not a botanist (obviously) but I do pay attention and it seems to be that garden centres often sell plants that are not quite as advertised. A chestnut we bought 35 years ago is certainly not a chestnut. What is it? I don’t know. Mostly I don’t mind. I love the named and the unnamed. The David Austin rose ‘Abraham Darby’ for example: it’s beautiful, but is it any more beautiful than the old moss rose given me by Vi Tyner more than 30 years ago and which I thought I’d moved from its location beside ‘Abraham Darby’? (The moss roses are the ones to the right, still not quite open, but when they do, you can smell them ten feet away, both the flowers themselves and the resiny “moss” on the sepals. I have two—a deep pink one and a pale pink and while I understand there are some mosses that are repeat bloomers, mine flower only once, in early June. But I remember them all summer.) I did move the plant but some canes stayed in place, obviously.

two roses

Moss roses are centifolias (“hundred-petaled”), hybrids created in probably the 17th century with gallicas and damask roses as possible parents. It’s when I read about roses and their provenance that I truly regret my lack of scientific background. There’s a tangle of flower-types, origins, and species; and they go back 35 million years. Humans have a long relationship with them, using them for everything from medicine to perfume to food. My hero Pliny the Elder (as opinionated as Ms. Perenyi) said this of the rose: “It is employed also by itself for certain medicinal purposes, and is used in plasters and eye-salves for its penetrating qualities: it is used, also, to perfume the delicacies of our banquets, and is never attended with any noxious results.” And what would poets do without roses to praise? Listen to the 14th c. Persian poet, Hafiz:

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
It felt the encouragement of light…

I felt that encouragement this afternoon, walking among the plants, roses entwined, the misnamed honeysuckle cascading over its supports, the robins singing the long salmonberry song in the woods beyond the house, and the light, most of all the light of late spring. Sometimes the hours are too brief to hold everything you need them to carry, too quickly they pass, but then you stop to look at butterflies in the flowering sage and it was only yesterday you brought that small plant home from a friend’s garden. You add up the hours, the years, and it was decades ago. But every spring, the flowers, the persistence.

almost bedfellows