a dark path, with voices

dark path

Recently we rearranged the paintings and other pieces of art in our house and we decided it was time to hang A Dark Path, the quilt I made in tandem with an essay of the same name, included in Blue Portugal & Other Essays. The man who was the baby lying on a blanket while I made the path now overgrown with grass, more than 40 summers ago, is here again, with his young sons, and they are outside, looking for a place to make a fort with their grandfather’s leftover lumber. How their voices remind me of earlier voices!

A path of rocks, some of them split open with a young woman’s strength, has long since returned to earth, hidden under decades of grass and moss, perhaps faintly detected by bare toes on a summer morning. And the trail from childhood to lives in the beautiful damaged world—knitted back together by salal, bramble, shaded by cedars, faint voices of those children heard when the light is right, the heart ready to hear them. A path down a mountain with an injured guide, no poet but a dog gone to memory. Scraps of fabric hoarded for years, held to the window, cut into approximations of rectangles, and pieced, waiting for me to join the seams together to make a whole. Dark blues, greys, silks from India embroidered with flowers and sequined, a small length of indigo printed with saffron moons. Unfold yourself. Unfold the path made of pieced fragments, broken geometries.

“M. Varro assures us that beans are very good for the voice.”

beans

When I swam in mist this morning, the water felt sweet, soft. Turning, turning, my body at home in the deep quiet lake, I wanted to stay forever. There was no one on the sand, no one bringing loads of gear for a day at the beach. It felt like the place I have known and loved for more than 40 years. In the spring of our first year together, John brought me here, set up a small pup tent on a grassy area under trees. We slept to the sound of loons, the scent of warm canvas. On the sand this morning, raccoon tracks. A single feather.

Returning home, I went out to pick beans in a light rain. We’ll eat them tonight, steamed briefly and dressed with walnut oil, some tarragon. We’ll eat pesto made with basil from the pots on the upper deck and a whole head of this year’s garlic, drying in the woodshed. When the Edmonton grandchildren were here, we had pasta with pesto to celebrate a birthday (the birthday girl’s choice) and then when their parents went to Powell River for a few days on their own, I asked the children what they’d like for dinner. Could we have that pesto again, they wondered. They helped me cut enough basil and chose pappardelle to spoon the green sauce over. They each ate two bowls of it, followed by Grandpa’s raspberries. More grandchildren are coming on Friday and these ones will have their own requests. I saved this year’s fig and apple prunings for the barbecue and who knows what we’ll cook on the fragrant coals.

Late in the night I came to my desk and found myself reading Pliny. As many times as I’ve read The Natural History, I always discover more. (The older I get, the more I feel like him — opinionated, a little cranky, dismissive.) I wondered what he had to say about beans and here he is, in full mettle.

Beans, too, furnish us with some remedies. Parched whole, and thrown hot into strong vinegar, they are a cure for grip- ings of the bowels. Bruised, and boiled with garlic, they are taken with the daily food for inveterate coughs, and for suppurations of the chest. Chewed by a person fasting, they are applied topically to ripen boils, or to disperse them; and, boiled in wine, they are employed for swellings of the testes and diseases of the genitals. Bean-meal, boiled in vinegar, ripens tumours and breaks them, and heals contusions and burns. M. Varro assures us that beans are very good for the voice. The ashes of bean stalks and shells, with stale hogs’- lard, are good for sciatica and inveterate pains of the sinews. The husks, too, boiled down, by themselves, to one-third, arrest looseness of the bowels.
          –(translated by John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.)

Thank goodness that beans taste so good because given this information, who would eat them for simple pleasure, tossed with walnut oil, a grinding of pepper, a snipping of tarragon and chives?

“…the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek”

back in the river

                                                                 the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek,

Coldwater, and the Kispiox where my children waded on a hot day in July, the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po (a rock, with an inscription, “Qui nasce il Po”, near Pian del Re, then the long journey to its fossil delta) and Arno (where I stood on another bridge and wished I could afford soft gloves) and the sweet Hoh, Queets, and Ozette where I camped as a young woman, the Snake, the Escalante and Kanab, the Lost and the Warm, and the Coeur d’Alene,

the Kern, the Mad, Klamath, and Rowdy Creek,

the Sooke, the Elk,

and the one I walk to season after season, near my home, where coho salmon swim in by starlight

and mergansers wait to feed on their eggs.

Note: this is an extract from “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, included in Blue Portugal and Other Essays, available from any bookseller.

I want the 70s back,

Sandcut Beach

he said, as we walked back to the car after our swim. We’d come to the lake just before 8 and already a guy was set up in one of the more private areas, with a shade cabana, a portable changing hut, a table, half a dozen chairs, 3 coolers, blankets spread out on the sand, and while we swam, another man brought 4 more loads of stuff to add to it, pulling a wagon from the parking area to the beach. 2 boys who might have been 8 were seated on the chairs, heads bent to their devices. The eagle who passes most mornings flew low this morning and the cabal of crows muttered in the cedars above the little settlement. But the boys didn’t look up.

John first saw this lake in the early 1970s, having arrived on a motorcycle late at night to camp on a bluff with his girlfriend. Waking, they saw the lake below them.

I first saw it in the sixties,
driving a Volkswagen camper
with a fierce gay poet and a
lovely but dangerous girl with a husky voice

I want the 70s back. We never bothered with bathing suits here, he said, and if we did, whoever you were with held a towel and you changed behind it. You sat on the hummocks of grass. You had a towel, maybe a bottle of beer in your bag. You swam. You stretched out under the hardhack and dozed in the sunlight.

And again, in the seventies, back from
Montana, I recklessly pulled off the highway
took a dirt track onto the flats,
got stuck—scared the kids—slept the night,
and the next day sucked free and went on.

In the mid-1970s, I slept on the beach in the photograph, a little to the left of the falls. If I was staying for longer than a day or two, I showered under the water you see falling to the beach. There were fossils in the sandstone under the shelf where the creek tumbles over. Sometimes I brought my dad’s little blue Primus stove:

Optimus 111B Reviews - Trailspace

I could make myself coffee in the morning or heat soup at night if the evening was cool. I spread out my sleeping bag behind some logs at the high-tide line and I swear those were the best sleeps of my life, the sound of the surf close enough to enter my dreams. Those days and nights on the beach helped me to survive the heartbreaks of my young womanhood, the difficult years when I wasn’t sure how to live. I’d lean against the logs and make the lines of poetry that became my first book. In gratitude for the place and its solace, I wrote a novella, Winter Wren

Fifteen years passed. In the eighties
With my lover I went where the roads end.
Walked the hills for a day,
looked out where it all drops away,
discovered a path

I want the 70s back, he said, as we passed the man pulling the wagon of every possible thing needed (or not needed) for a few hours at a beautiful lake, the little boys on their chairs peering into the tiny screens of their phones.

Note: the lines of poetry are Gary Snyder’s, from “Finding the Space in the Heart”

“If that blue could stay for ever”(Virginia Woolf)

light

As I was walking under these trees this morning towards the lake for my swim, I remembered my dream, the one I dreamed after letting the cat out past midnight and waking again at dawn to hear the Swainson’s thrush still singing, singing, its final song before the silence of August. I thought of Virginia Woolf: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” So what surfaced, what was the dream?

I wanted to write a play. I wanted it to be filled with the rivers I was seeing as I dreamed–lovely narrow ones, tumbling over rocks, silvery in the light; wide ones, almost as wide as the ocean, with distant hills on the other side; a deep green pool at the bottom of a falls that reminded me of Rearguard Falls, the farthest point the Fraser River salmon reach on their long migration. Wanted the story of the young man who was talking to me about his life on a farm in Nova Scotia, the story of someone else (it’s not clear who) I saw on the road between one river and another.

The play I wanted to write had complex stories and voices (the rivers, the road itself, the trees dusty on its shoulders) and how would I do it? I asked my son, Brendan, who is a mathematician. In the dream he suggested I make nodes of each voice, what it wanted to say, the dramas within the rivers themselves, the lanky branches of the trees. When you’ve done that, he said, we’ll figure out their values and make an equation. Then you will be able to write the play.

When I woke from this dream, a little light coming through the white linen curtains, the song of the Swainson’s thrush beyond the mossy area at the edge of our land, I wanted to know that equation. How to bring together the voices I’d heard so clearly, their stories, the way they were separate but somehow waiting to be drawn together on a stage lit by a small lamp, the plangent notes of the Aria da Capo concluding the Goldberg Variations, everything waiting, the words with their values, the careful polynomial notation. the equivalencies, the structure. I wanted to sleep again, dream again, just long enough to pay more attention to Brendan’s work as he took the nodes and gave them form.

I lie back. It seems as if the whole world were flowing and curving — on the earth the trees, in the sky the clouds. I look up, through the trees, into the sky. The clouds lose tufts of whiteness as the breeze dishevels them. If that blue could stay for ever; if that hole could remain for ever; if this moment could stay for ever.
–Virginia Woolf, from The Waves

noises off

nois·es off
/noiziz ôf,äf/
 
noun
  1. sounds made offstage to be heard by the audience of a play.
     
     

chime

1.

Last summer I made a windchime with A. and E. We collected shells at Francis Point, sticks at Trail Bay, and spent an hour or so working out the best arrangement. Because they were flying home after their visit to us, the windchime stayed here. It hangs still by the front door. But the Edmonton grandchildren wanted to make a windchime too, one they could take back with them as they camped their way home. Yesterday we strung shells and sticks from a longer stick Grandpa John had drilled with holes for the wire. We hung the finished windchime in the woodshed overnight, from one of the wires in place to hold the garlic we will dig later this week and string up to dry under the airy beams.

chime2

2.

Noises off. They left at 6:30, the children still in their pyjamas, big travel mugs of coffee waiting on the worktable for the parents, the windchime packed in the trunk of the car. Where will we hang it, one child wondered, and the other said, Maybe in the lilac, the one we climb? In the woodshed this morning, absolute quiet.

on the stick

4.

The children were playing down on the grass when the dragonfly landed on the stick holding a tomatillo upright, the same tomatillo we picked fruit from yesterday for green salsa to have with our steelhead tacos. The children were playing and didn’t see the dragonfly turn one of its compound eyes in the direction of John and me, drinking our coffee at the round table where the blue sky was reflected. “Dragonflies can see in all directions at the same time. That’s one of many advantages of a compound eye; you can wrap it around your head..The spherical field of vision means that dragonflies are still watching you after they have flown by.”* Was the dragonfly looking at us or the children or all of us at once?

3.

This morning we swam early, once we’d waved them all goodbye as they drove down the driveway to join the ferry traffic from Earls Cove. Tonight they will camp in the Nicola Valley. H. will use his whistle to see if he can summon loons, the ones we saw when we camped in the valley decades ago with our own small children, the ones that warbled at dusk, at sunrise, the ones that swam close to shore among the rushes. Where were their nests? We never found out.

This morning, we swam early, and Look, John said, pointing beyond us to the loon family quietly passing.

5.

The towels and sheets have been washed, the toys put away. The extra plates and silver-plated cutlery will be returned to the cupboard. Noises off.

*biologist Robert Olberg, in the Smithsonian Magazine.

the days

hollow tree

Yesterday we walked to Francis Point’s Middle Bay and the kids explored the beach. Their parents are away for a couple of days and Grandpa John and I have been enjoying their company. They come to the lake and play in the sand while I have my early swim. H. has a loon whistle from the Egmont Museum and this morning he brought it with him to the lake. Was it coincidence or was it him making it warble on the shore that brought the sound of loons to us in the beautiful morning air? A loon family appeared several times in the past few weeks but not for a few days. On yesterday’s walk, the children tucked themselves into the hollow tree, the same tree that sheltered their Ottawa cousins in February.

hollow tree 2

For lunch I made pesto with our beautiful basil and we had it tossed with pappardelle. They sat at the little table by the mason bee house and ate two bowlsfull each. The other day they saw a lizard on the upper deck and K. watched it climb the exterior wall of the sunroom. They wondered if the big birds floating overhead on thermals were vultures or eagles.

Sometimes it’s very noisy in the house that is quiet almost all year long. Sometimes I can’t answer the questions, particularly the ones about hockey or football posed to me by H. What’s my favourite team? (Don’t have one.) Whose my favourite player? (Ditto.) But then I remembered when we were in Edmonton in early December, watching the kids on the little local rink, H. racing around with a hockey stick, turning corners on his ankles, and how he confided in me then that he was good enough for the NHL. “I wouldn’t be the best player, not yet, but I could do it,” he said confidently. (He is 5.) He says everything confidently. Last night he said not to turn out the bedside light because he was going to be awake for ages, thinking, and when I went in about 10 minutes later, he was fast asleep in his dinosaur pyjamas. What was he dreaming that made him smile in his sleep? We’d read a story about knights and courageous tasks and maybe he was among them in his dream. K. was wrapped in the pale blue quilt with chintz squares and her curly hair was spread over her pillow. By her side, the book she’d been reading: Little House in the Big Woods. In our big woods, owls call, a deer stepped out so the children could watch it walk across the grass, elegant and heraldic, and the days are accumulating, one and one and one.

shell seekers

redux: hidden, then visible

Note: this was posted in July, 2016. Yesterday, I was telling the grandchildren about the weasel I’d seen on the sunroom roof, running in and out of the little areas where panels of metal roofing overlap. We didn’t see a weasel then but I remembered this one.

____________________________

In May, I was lying in bed one morning when I saw a face in the window, peering in from the strands of trumpet vine that run along the side of the house. What I saw and what I understood about an empty robins’ nest  was discussed in this post.

the culprit (1)

Most nights I read in bed and almost every night I hear something in the roof by the bathroom. We live in a wild area and so we’re accustomed to creatures — well, mice —  finding their way into the walls sometimes. In the past we’ve had cats but not now. (And given the abundance of coyotes in our area, I don’t know how long a cat would last.) But this never sounds like mice. They skitter and you can hear them gnawing. This sound is something else — a sound resonating in metal. (We have a metal roof; it replaces the original roof of cedar shakes.) John is always kind of skeptical. I know he believes I hear something but he is usually downstairs when I’m reading and so he hasn’t heard those feet racing through metal.

Hadn’t. Until this morning. He was in the bathroom and there it was. Something in the roof, or at least that’s how it sounded. He went outside and looked around. Nothing. As he was coming in the sunroom door, he looked up. And peering out of the little metal tunnel — where the lower roof of sunroom meets the side of the house — there was a face. A weasel. It came out, then backed in. He called to me and I came upstairs. How beautiful, the face of a tiny weasel looking at us through trumpet vine. The weasel I saw in May was probably a mother with a burrow of young somewhere near  — I saw her in the woodshed so I suspect she had her brood among the firewood — and about this time in the life cycle, she and a male (not necessarily the father of her young) will be teaching the family to hunt. So this could be a young one or an adult. By now the babies are full sized, though the males aren’t yet sexually mature. (The female young have probably already been impregnated by the hunting male.) We didn’t have a camera at hand but I went out later to see if the animal was still there. No. But you can imagine it just below that orange trumpet flower, its bright eyes and tawny body emerging, then backing in again, though not completely. We spoke to it. It sniffed the air. Us.

where the weasel was.JPG

This kind of tunnel — there must be a name for it but it’s where the metal roof material covers the flashing — runs along all the gable ends of our house. And we have many rooflines because our house grew. And parts of it are two stories high, other parts — the kitchen, the sunroom built off one end of our bedroom where a door takes you out onto a deck over the back of the house, where the children’s bedrooms were — are a single story high. (A single story! As though there’s ever a single story to anyone’s life.) So when I’m sitting at my desk and hearing that sound, when I’m lying in my bed hearing it, when we are anywhere in the house hearing it, it’s because weasels are hunting mice in the place where the roof meets the house. It’s almost an ecotone, an area of transition. Not in the house but not outside. I know bats sometimes rest there during the day and I don’t like to think that they are probably forming a part of the weasel family’s diet. But you don’t get to choose.

In the lore about weasels, much is made of their smell. Yet the one that came into our house two years ago and raced up and down the bookshelves in my study didn’t smell. And going out just now to see if the one in the roof was still around, I could only smell the morning lilies.

P1120751.JPG

My old friend Gaius Plinius Secundus (who ya gonna call?) remarks that weasels are the only animals that can kill a basilisk, those fearsome serpents capable of killing with a glance. And it seems that they are useful too in preserved form for any kind of snake bite.

There are two varieties of the weasel; the one, wild,1 larger than the other, and known to the Greeks as the “ictis:” its gall is said to be very efficacious as an antidote to the sting of the asp, but of a venomous nature in other respects.2 The other kind,3 which prowls about our houses, and is in the habit, Cicero tells us,4 of removing its young ones, and changing every day from place to place, is an enemy to serpents. The flesh of this last, preserved in salt, is given, in doses of one denarius, in three cyathi of drink to persons who have been stung by serpents: or else the maw of the animal is stuffed with coriander seed and dried, to be taken for the same purpose in wine. The young one of the weasel is still more efficacious for these purposes.

1 The ferret, most probably.

2 See c. 33 of this Book.

3 The common weasel.

4 Probably in his work entitled “Admiranda,” now lost. Holland says “some take these for our cats.

“The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

When a weasel runs, its coat moves so beautifully with it. I thought how wonderful to be that comfortable in your skin, all of a piece (like seeing a bear running across the grass, its glossy black cloak like something out of a fairy tale). And the sound of them in a roof is its own kind of music, hidden, and then visible.

three blue days

10 years

A few days ago, we decided we’d do some indigo dye work. My daughter Angelica and I spent a day preparing cloth — two sheets and two pillow cases in her case; a length of coarse linen (with waxed fish in the centre (more on this another time), a sheet, and a stained vintage damask table cloth for me, as well as some things I’d tied or clamped ages ago, hoping for a good time to dye–and then the weather wasn’t reliable for a day of standing outside, dipping our cloth into a dye vat, removing it so it could oxidize, and repeating as many times as we had patience for. The Edmonton family arrived. I wondered if the kids would like to prepare a small piece of cotton for the vat, something they could use as a flag for their room at home. They wound elastic bands around beach stones and added the cloth to the basket.

Yesterday didn’t begin in a promising way. When I swam early, it was drizzling a little. But then it cleared and given that some people will leave on Thursday, we decided that we’d make it work. We set up the dye vat on the long cedar bench by the garden and filled it with ten gallons of hot water, adding the prepared dye stock and the various chemicals. Angelica, Kelly, and I began the dips of the various bundles, pushing them down into the dye, stirring gently (so as not to introduce oxygen), and Henry also came to help.

helping

I kept leaving between dips, while the fabric rested on the bench, to do things for dinner. A few people walked, there were snacks, eventually drinks on the deck as the sun really began to assert itself after days of grey. We did 5 dips before dinner and even though we were tired of standing, we went out to do 2 more after we’d eaten, the 3 of us slapping away mosquitoes, one person timing the dips and rests. We removed all the bundles to the bench overnight and today, after pancakes and sausages, we went out to untie, unclamp, and unfold our cloth.

untiedcornersclamped

All over the grass, lengths of blue cotton and linen, as lovely as fallen sky. Lovely as water. In my recent book, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, I wrote about an earlier dye session, one I did alone on a summer morning, slapping at mosquitoes:

When I did this work, I remembered another occasion, outside, taking lengths of linen out of the tray where they’d been setting overnight after a morning of frequent timed immersions. While I was doing this, I realized the sound I was hearing, agitated, loud, was a whole family of pileated woodpeckers, the young having just learned to fly. They were flapping around awkwardly and making the most comical noise while the parents scolded and encouraged. Mosquitoes kept stinging the small of my back. What the cloth remembers, I will remember too—gathering the stones, sewing the circles that became the growth rings of larch, tying cotton string as tightly as I could. And the cloth and I will also remember the raucous sound of adolescent pileated woodpeckers finding their wings, learning what a voice sounds like in open air, in the morning, before the heat begins.

Weeks later, sewing spirals that draw together three layers of cloth—the newly-dyed surface, cotton batting in-between, and a back of old sheets or muslin—I try to recall each step of the process: filling the vat and measuring indigo, additives, finding a long cedar stick to stir the bundles of tied, clamped, and bundled cloth, brushing mosquitoes from my clothing, leaving streaks of blue on my old t-shirt, allowing the cloth to drip on the grass.

Maybe we are cloth, we are the very fabric of being, the world recorded on us like blue dye, the sound of woodpeckers echoing in the trees just beyond.

What the cloth remembers, I will remember too. My granddaughter, my daughter, and I, stirring with our blue-stained gloves, talking a little, wondering about the results of our work. And then our delight as we removed string, wooden blocks, elastic bands, stones from Trail Bay, to see what the cloth remembers of its time bound and tied, remembers as it is spread out on the grass under the blue sky, and warm sun, the wonder of it, mosquitoes forgotten.

redux: three

Note:  I wrote this post on July 17, 2017. She is arriving later today with her family to celebrate her 8th birthday.

_________________

In late May, we went to Edmonton to see our family there. My granddaughter told me she was “between 2 1/2 and 3″— a pretty good way of thinking about age. Today is her birthday and we just called her. She’s adamantly 3. This is what 3 looks like:

three

Her father called us just before midnight on July 16th, 2014 to tell us she was on her way. Then he called an hour or two later to announce her birth. He was dazzled. So were we. We couldn’t sleep so John went downstairs and brought back two glasses of Laphroiag and we toasted the baby—she hadn’t yet been named—and the new chapter we were entering. That morning we were dizzy with lack of sleep (and maybe the Laphroaig) but managed to pack the car so that we could leave first thing the next morning to drive across the mountains to meet Kelly. Holding her for the first time is something I will never forget.

kelly-and-grandma

We spent a few days with the new family and then drove home again to a house and a life that seemed both empty and rich at the same time. The thing about grandchildren is that you want to see them more than is possible with the lives our children live. Edmonton, Ottawa: it’s not possible to have dinners together every weekend or to read bedtime stories as often as we’d like. Skype is ok but not the same as the weight of a child on your lap, the smell of damp hair at the nape of a neck. Still, I feel very lucky to see my children and grandchildren as often as I do, knowing that my own grandparents left Europe and never saw their families there again. My great-grandparents never saw their grandchildren in Canada. When I was a child, we saw our grandparents maybe once a year. There were phone calls at Christmas.

In May, we had a week of meals with two of our children, their partners, and our 3 grandchildren. I’d wake in the morning filled with joy. At one point, in Brendan and Cristen’s backyard, I looked over to see this little group, and I wished I could paint:

weeds and grandma's shadow.JPG

That’s my shadow in the lower left corner. A few weeks ago, I was walking with the grandson in the middle of the photograph, on his street in Ottawa, and I looked behind us to see our shadows joined, following us. Depending on the light, shadows precede us, follow us, hover as we pause to notice ants on the stone, a bird in a tree, a cat washing itself on a porch. Always present, even if it’s too cloudy to see them. Too dark.

When we left Edmonton after Kelly’s birth, we drove as far as Kamloops and stayed overnight in our favourite old hotel. I woke many times that night, full of the memory of her wayward eye, her cry. I wrote this then:

This morning we’ll drive home over the Coquihalla highway and through the Fraser Valley, all haunted by memories of earlier trips with our children. It’s all part of us — the tang of sage in the air as we drive up out of the city, the soft sky fringed with pines, the sultry air near Hope. At least twenty five years ago we pointed out the shale on the Coquihalla Summit to Kelly’s father, a little boy of four or five, and he exclaimed, “Shale! I wish I was the land!”