“As your boat draws in closer, the roar and the mist come out to meet you.” (Capi Blanchet)

chart

Ever since I first read M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time as a younger woman (I think it was the 1990 edition so I would have been 35), I’ve wanted to see Princess Louisa Inlet. You can only get there by boat or float plane or maybe helicopter. I’ve read other books too that detail trips to the area — Beth Hill’s Upcoast Summers is on my desk as I write. So when a friend called on Tuesday night to ask if John and I would like to join him and another couple (also friends) for an overnight trip there, it took me about 5 seconds to say yes. Our friend grew up in this area and he’s made a life of publishing books that document and celebrate its history and beauty. He’s the ideal host and guide.

It took us 6 hours on Thursday to make the journey. Everything I saw astonished me. We paused by a little gallery of pictographs not too far from where I live, on Agamemnon Channel, though not accessible by road, and they were like sign posts. You’re on the right track.

look up

Everything was astonishing — the mountains, the water, old logging slashes, remnants of camps — and after we came through Malibu Rapids into Princess Louisa Inlet, I had a lump in my throat.

The inlet is about five miles long, a third of a mile wide, and the mountains that flank it on either side are over a mile high. From inside the entrance you can see right down to the far end where it takes the short L-turn to the left. At that distance you can see over the crest to where the upper snowfields lie exposed, with their black beaks breaking through the snow. The scar of a landslide that runs diagonally for four thousand feet is plainly visible. At certain times of the day the whole inlet seems choked with mountains, and there is no apparent line between where the cliffs enter the sea and where the reflections begin.

I don’t really have the words for how beautiful it was to move through those placid waters, the mountains high on either side,

mountains

how it felt like I was arriving at a place I somehow knew, and somehow knew I needed right then, a day in early September, with most of my life behind me, but hopefully enough to anticipate and savour, and when we came to the end of the Inlet, where we were to dock for the night, the sight of Chatterbox Falls opened my heart with its cascades of clean water.

Then suddenly, dramatically, in a couple of boat-lengths, the whole abrupt end of the inlet comes into sight–heavily wooded, green, but rising steeply. Your eye is caught first by a long white scar, up about two thousand feet, that slashes across…and disappears into the dark green background. Again, another splash of white, but farther down. Now you can see that it has movement. It is moving down and down, in steep rapids. Disappearing…reappearing…and then in one magnificent leap plunging off the cliff and into the sea a hundred feet below. As your boat draws in closer, the roar and the mist come out to meet you.

chatterbox falls

It was hot and a few of us immediately plunged into the ocean. A sign warned of lion’s mane jellyfish and we did see a few, one fist-sized and one the size of a large pizza, but we swam away from them. And the water was everything I hoped it would be. I felt new somehow.

We ate Sharon’s delicious spaghetti and meatballs, her focaccia made with potatoes and coarse ground wheat, a salad from our garden, an apple cake made with our Merton Beauty apples, and we drank glasses of cold white wine. When it was bedtime, John and I tucked ourselves into the little berth at the prow, the skylight open to this:

night

The stars had filled up the long crack of sky above me. Brighter stars than you see anywhere else…bright…so bright…

When I woke just after 5, the stars had all set, except the morning star, Venus, in exactly the same place the moon had lingered the night before, reflected in the calm water.

We had time for a little wander around next morning, talking to a young couple in one of the two boats also moored at the dock (a third belongs to the ranger),

you can't see us here

and then it was time to leave. Would I have loved this trip more if I’d been given it twenty years ago? Ten? I don’t know. I carry so many stories already, and some of those are stories I’ve read about Princess Louisa Inlet. They spin out like a fishing line into deep green water. But today I am doing my chores–laundry, watering, picking tomatoes to make into sauce– full of the sound of the waterfall, the memory of two seals gliding through the water as I watched Venus yesterday morning, my head poking out of the skylight, and I am still in that water, swimming, I am lying in my bunk, feeling the gentle movement of water underneath me, and the mergansers are muttering as they pass by us in search of their own breakfast.

Standing in the Present, on the highest point of the curve, you can look back and see the Past, or forward and see the Future, all in the same instant. Or, if you stand off to one side of this curve, as I am doing, your eye wanders from one to the other without any distinction.

heading back

Note: the quoted passages are from M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time (50th Anniversary Edition, published by Whitecap Books)

redux: the unlived life

leaving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jp-tk

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

_________________________

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

“Songs so old/and so tied to the season” (Karina Borowicz)

lake1

This morning, swimming, I was thinking about vegetables. And fruit. Thinking about what I need to do to with the tomatoes, the basil, the huge stems of rhubarb. I was swimming and thinking and I saw the light on the islands in the distance. John was finishing his swim so I called, Will you take a photograph? Somehow the light has turned from summer’s honeyed gold to something more austere. While I swam, the last of the swallows were dipping over the surface of the water, two of them swooping right over my arms, windmilling me backwards from one grove of cedars to the other, my sentinels.

I’ve made four batches of roasted tomato sauce, filling 3 pans at a time with halved tomatoes, a head of peeled garlic, an onion cut into quarters, and a few branches of rosemary, everything slick with olive oil. When they’re melted and slightly dark on the edges, I put everything in the blender with some red wine, a handful of basil, juice and zest of half a lemon, and puree until I have a smooth ochre sauce. I freeze this in glass canning jars (leaving lots of room for the sauce to expand). It’s wonderful as is on pasta, pizza, and is the basis for bolognese sauce. Defrosted and thinned with milk or light cream, it’s a delicious soup. So there’s lots of that for winter. There are 9 jars of savoury tomato jam, which I think might be really great with cheese and pâté. I also roasted 6 cookie sheets of halved San Marzano and Principe Borghese tomatoes, topped with oil and chopped herbs — rosemary, basil, thyme, savoury, and lots of minced garlic. These get frozen in tubs lined with parchment. These are also wonderful on pizza or as simple bruschetta topping or as a side dish with roast chicken or fish. There are still bees in the tomato plants (which are still blooming because they’re indeterminates) but I don’t expect a late crop. Tomatillos, peppers, and eggplants are doing well in the greenhouse, along with cucumbers, including one I didn’t plant: lemon cucumbers. I grew them years ago but this year I only planted Armenian and Marketmore and so where did these lemon cucumbers come from? A late summer mystery.

It feels cruel. Something in me isn’t ready
to let go of summer so easily. To destroy
what I’ve carefully cultivated all these months.
Those pale flowers might still have time to fruit.

lake2

While I was doing the last part of my slow morning kilometer, I was wondering what to do with the case of peaches I brought home from Sechelt on Wednesday. Jam, yes — and I chopped equal quantities of peaches and rhubarb to mix with crystallized ginger, brown and white sugar, and a dollop of rum; it’s in a big bowl in the porch to sit overnight. Tomorrow I’ll boil it for jam. I also sliced enough peaches to fill two cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. When they’re frozen, I’ll put the slices in bags for winter pies, cobblers, and the trifle John makes every Christmas. Tomorrow we’ll go blackberry picking–for jam and also just to freeze in bags for winter desserts. And summer desserts. When Brendan, Cristen, and their children were here, Brendan asked for his favourite simple ice-cream, one we call “Blackberry Whip”. Put frozen blackberries (or raspberries or mango or, or, or…) in the food processor with a little sugar. Pulse a few times. Then add heavy cream, pulsing until everything has turned to the consistency of ice-cream. It doesn’t freeze well so don’t even think of not eating the entire batch. I think we had it 4 times when those guys were here. (I made other ice-creams with my KitchenAid attachment for Angie and Karna; and Forrest, Manon, and their kids: chocolate, vanilla, and the most delicious ginger…)

Every summer is different. Some are the years of beans. Not this year. Weather, I guess. We have enough to eat every other day but not the mountains of them from years past when I would be filling jars for pickled beans and giving bags away.

So the light has changed, shifted, and so has the weather. It’s cooler, even though the sun is out right now. Our morning swim is in shade.

My great-grandmother sang with the girls of her village
as they pulled the flax. Songs so old
and so tied to the season that the very sound
seemed to turn the weather.

In July and early August, I’d feel its warmth on my face half-way through my swim, and we’d have coffee on the upper deck when we got home, our towels on the railing and the umbrella up to shade the table. (What was your favourite thing about your visit with Grandma and Grandad, Forrest asked Arthur when we were saying goodbye at the ferry, and he thought for a moment and then replied, The upper deck. I suspect it was Grandad’s chocolate digestive biscuits that made it memorable but the boys were also good helpers with watering and picking tomatoes.)

lake3

When I’m preparing food for the freezer or for jam, when I’m thinking ahead to winter, I’m also working to preserve the light, the warmth of the sun that ripens tomatoes, brings the bees, catches my bare shoulders under my straw hat and turns them brown as hazelnuts. Often I am singing as I fill the jars, slice the peaches from their stony heart. If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone, the song all my grandchildren asked for as a lullaby. In the dark room, I’d hold them, their hair damp from swims or baths, singing, All these years and all these roads/Never led me back to you. Songs so old and so tied to the season, sweetly sad departures, the long highway to the ferry, the flights, the drive back over the mountains.

But they do lead back, too. And I’ll be here, with blackberry jam, peach and rhubarb jam bright with ginger, and the summer’s tomatoes waiting.

Note: the lines of poetry are from Karina Borowicz’s “September Tomatoes”.



			

redux: bluets, or the radiant days

Note: after 6 weeks of summer visitors, our house is quiet enough to remember other summers, summers of damselflies and Nicola Lake.

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

“On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps”

the green church

In honour of Ukraine’s anniversary of independence, I offer a small passage from my recent book, Blue Portugal & Other Essays. Sometimes it takes a person a long time, almost a lifetime, to find their roots, or some of them. Here’s Exhibit 3 from “Museum of the Multitude Village”. Slava Ukraini!

Exhibit 3: villages viewed from train windows

Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness—as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival.1

I kept pulling aside the little blind over the window at the foot of my bed on the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi. It was dark but there were lights in the little villages we passed: lamplight, streetlights, a few dim platform lights smudging the edges of the tracks. We’d had cherry liquor earlier in the evening, a mellow way to pass the hours in a narrow compartment, talking with our Ukrainian host, an employee of Cobblestone Freeway, and sharing some chocolate, and then I put on my cotton nightdress and tried to find the most comfortable position on my side of the compartment. Already our beds had been made up with a crisp sheet, another folded on top, and two square pillows, with fresh white cases.

Three times in my life I’ve spent a night in a train compartment. No, four, because I traveled from Spain to Brindisi on a train, two trains (because I changed in Rome), sitting upright with passengers on either side, and didn’t sleep a wink. Around me people drank wine, smoked, talked all night, eating bread with sliced garlic. I was so entranced by everything I saw—sleeping villages, a floodlit castle on a hill, horses racing along some dunes in the southwest of France as the light returned—that I didn’t mind being awake. But the first time I had a bed on a train was a dreadful experience, traveling from Bologna to Paris. John and I thought we had a private couchette but found ourselves instead with four fellow bedmates, amiable young Italian men heading to a religious gathering. Two of them had heavy colds and they coughed and sneezed repeatedly, but happily joined the others for prayers and hymns. I climbed into the top bunk and tried to get comfortable, knowing I would have to climb down to pee at least once in the night. It was November. Again, I didn’t sleep. At dawn our train broke down somewhere in Central France, just beyond a village tucked in the bottom of a hill. There was no heat. The compartment became foggy with condensation. The single toilet on our car backed up. I will never do this again, I said tersely to John, watching the young men say their rosaries while coughing into the shared air, because by then the full quartet was sick. We went outside to stand in the cold on the edge of fields and waited. Eventually a new engine arrived and we proceeded to Paris, late and chilled, with the beginnings of an illness that lasted for weeks.

The second time, a year later, was wonderful. John was trying to get us from the Czech Republic to the Netherlands in the least disruptive way. I’d been sick while in Brno and was recovering slowly. Rather than face the cattle call of one of the cheap airlines taking people from one place to another with the least amount of comfort, he discovered that we had enough points for a first-class overnight train ride from Prague to Amsterdam, the cost minimal. It was memorable. We were greeted with a glass of champagne as we boarded the train. Our couchette had its own tiny bathroom, with a sink that swiveled on a bronze arm, and a shower. Big plush towels. Our beds were made up with fresh white linen. That night I slept so well, awakened only by the sound of the train stopping at stations; when I’d peek through the blind at the end of my bed, I’d see a sign saying Köln or Dresden. A few people on dark platforms, their suitcases beside them and the sound of outer coach doors opening, closing, while I was warm under the duvet. Our porter brought us a breakfast tray of good coffee, croissants, cheese and ham, and glasses of cold orange juice. From the window I watched children in a small village walking to school, someone mopping the entrance to a bar, and smoke rising from chimneys while a slow river ran under a bridge where a man dangled a fishing line and didn’t look up at the train.

On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps, I saw them close, and in the distance. And oh, Orion stretched across the sky above one small village, close enough to touch. When I checked my husband’s watch, it was 4:30 a.m.. I made a little drawing in my notebook, wanting to remember the exact placement of the stars. I was on the train, drawing Orion, and 32,000 years ago, someone in a cave in the Swabian Jura was carving Orion into a length of mammoth bone to make a star map to keep the memory of a constellation at hand. I could almost hear the cows lowing in the fields to be milked, to be given a handful of hay from the stooks that stood close to the houses. The train took us from darkness to light and from the present to a place where my own ancestors had lived for generations. The train, traveling through the night, as it once took my grandfather from Chernivtsi to Lviv (or Lemberg, it would have been then) to Krakow and then Bremen or Hamburg, for his long journey to North America and another life. Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness. I remember the sound of the whistle as we approached our final station, early morning, each village awake too in its place, lights extinguished for the day.

1 Railtracks is a correspondence, a dialogue between John Berger and Anne Michaels, taking place against a backdrop of Tereza Stehlíková’s moody photographs of Bohemia. 69.

turn

fir2

This morning, it feels like the season has turned, though we have a month left of true summer. The air was cool when I woke at 6 and when I came downstairs to make coffee, there were two jays insistent for their breakfast outside the sliding doors. I sat on the deck, watching them eat the peanuts first and then the sunflower seeds, while a pileated woodpecker called nearby. I thought about the tomatoes to be picked, the greens to be collected for a hortopita later this week, and whether there might be potatoes in the tubs I haven’t checked for ages.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted

What was your favourite part of your visit, my son asked his older child as they were getting ready to return to Ottawa on Friday morning. The upper deck, he said. After our morning swim, we’d take coffee and cookies up to the table and sit for a bit before I began the watering. Both grandsons loved the chocolate digestive biscuits best. We’d talk, watch bees move from flower to flower, check the paper wasp nest under the eaves, and then they’d help me water the tomatoes. Sometimes a dragonfly landed on a stick supporting a tomatillo or on a stone in the pottery dish I keep filled with water for frogs. The sun is lower in the southern sky now and the deck is still in shade.

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together

When I was drinking my coffee before my swim, I was looking at the jays and missed the abundance of cones on the big Douglas firs just beyond the lower deck. After the swim, I took my breakfast there and John joined me with his coffee. He pointed out the glistening resin on the ends of some of the cones. This is a good cone year but I bet next year will be even better. The reproductive cycle of a Douglas fir is about 17 months and in April, we both said how we’d never seen so many pollen cones. They covered the ground like confetti and everything under or near the trees was golden with pollen.

fir3

Cooler mornings, longer nights. Maybe some travel. Sorting out the greenhouse for the winter. A novel to write. Soon the squirrels will race out to the ends of the Douglas fir branches and toss cones down to the ground where they’ll fight over them and the victors will gather them to store away. The first ping on the roof as one goes wild is always a surprise. What was that? (The squirrels have a hard throw.)

What I want: more time. More of these cool mornings before the sun comes over the mountain, the company of small boys and jays, the scent of ripe tomatoes and apples, the absolute joy of swimming back and forth between the cedars under an early sky, the sand by the lake’s edge busy with raccoon tracks and evidence of crows. I want time to sit again with a quilt, stitching everything I know into its soft surface, stitching the mysteries of love and hope, the bitterness of friends gone without farewells, the huge space fear takes up in a heart (spirals, turns, long strands of red thread, and blue). I want too much.

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak

summer afternoon(s)

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Henry James

They are beautiful words to me, too. Since early July we’ve had so many memorable ones. The blue ones,

blue afternoon

the grey ones at Trail Bay while some people swam in the ocean and others sat on logs looking towards Vancouver Island under the clouds.

grey afternoon

There were purple afternoons when children found sea stars tucked under the rocks and seaweed at low tide,

purple and green afternoon

and there was yesterday, not photographed, when I floated in Middle Bay at Francis Point, floated, drifted, while the little boys made a habitat for hermit crabs and tiny snails and an oyster cemented to a stone in an orange bucket shaded with bladder wrack, calling goodbye as they emptied everything into the tide as we left.

redux: “like the figures of a magic lantern”

Note: I woke this morning from a dream of the Carpathian mountains and remembered this post from September, 2016. Three years later, I was in the mountains myself and now, 6 years later, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to return.

___________________

Who can say how you find a book or it finds you? I was in the Sechelt Library the other day, idly looking through the non-fiction shelves for something, anything, to read. I’ve been going to this library for a long time and I’m familiar with the holdings. It’s not a large library but the staff are unfailingly helpful and I’ve more than used my allotted share of interlibrary loans, though no one points that out; they keep getting me whatever books I request.

So there was a book I hadn’t seen, by an author I’d never heard of. The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe From Finland to Ukraine, by Paolo Rumiz, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti. Rumiz and his traveling companion, a photographer called Monika, make their way from Finland, near Lake Inari, along the path once described by the Iron Curtain and now (more or less) the scaffolding of the European Union, through countryside, industrial towns, abandoned synagogues, Orthodox communities, using buses and rattling trains for the most part, though also hitchhiking and at one point renting a car in order to visit places they couldn’t reach otherwise. It’s a book I read with my atlas nearby. I’d read and then find the relevant page in my Oxford Concise World Atlas (third edition), the one John gave me to replace the atlases of our children’s childhoods, the ones with both the British Empire (in pink) and the USSR taking up more than their share of the maps.

There are no maps that contain all of Europe from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Sirte. From a longitudinal perspective, they are all partial maps, which seldom go further north than Saint Petersburg. This made it difficult for me not only to plan, but even to imagine my journey. Before my departure, a sense of the distances escaped me. The immense boreal lands were too shrunken, those closer to the Mediterranean too enlarged. So I had to make my own map, on a scale of one to one million, transferring pieces of various atlases onto a single strip of paper, long and narrow, folded like an accordion. I marked out my possible itinerary in red, thousands of versts long, and next to it in blue the European Community frontier, and between the two lines there was a kind of courtship, with each endlessly pursuing the other. At the margins of the strip, as in a dazibao, a slew of annotations drawn from books, Russian maps, notes gathered catch-as-catch-can from other travelers. (From the endnotes: A verst is an ancient Russian measure of length, equivalent to 0.66 miles. A dazibao is a large-character, handwritten Chinese wall poster, frequently associated with the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.)

This book took me to places I’d never heard of — the Kola peninsula, Kaliningrad, Lake Onega — and places I had heard of, in poetry, legend, song: Karelia, Aluksne in Latvia, the wooden churches of Bukovyna, where my grandfather came from. We travel by the Murmansk-Novorossiysk train, through mountains and past swollen rivers. We visit the Old Believers on Lake Peipsi, “their vegetable gardens, loomed over by spectacular gray-blue clouds, are the most beautiful in Europe. Little gardens of Eden.” It’s a book to savour. I read a little each night and then found myself picking it up for ten minutes here and there during the day because I wanted its prose, its locations, the experience of entering a new country  where people resisted Russification with song: “We resisted the Communist Big Brother by singing. Our identity found shelter in music, in the art of allusion, in the slanted reading of the lyrics.” This book is a song, too, written in a dense and lyrical style; its observations are at once erudite and mythical. There are ghosts that haunt the author as he explores the ruined buildings of frontier towns that had seen and heard more than their share of war, the forests with their mass graves and the silence of streets after dark when one might have expected to hear music, liturgy, the lively sound of human social activity. (Instead, a car door slams and there’s sound of a fist hitting a face.) Security forces enter train compartments with wolf-dogs and search bags for smuggled cigarettes or Ipods taped to women’s thighs like garters. Old women cook blini and offer moonshine and stories.

In the Carpathians, nearing the end of the journey, more magic:

…In the immense silence of the evening, I drink a beer with my feet soaking in the river and a dog by the name of Uaciata sitting next to me, come down to greet me from the house next door. Her name, so tender, means “sketch.”

Stars. Dinner of cured ham and cheese by the hearth in the inn. Above it, the room looks out on the river; that’s the only sound I can hear. The ideal place for a good rest, but I can’t get to sleep. Monika is sleeping so deeply, it seems she’s on another planet. I, on the other hand, suddenly feel crushed under the weight of all the things we’ve seen. Too many. I have no idea why this is happening to me here and now, at the centre of the continent. It’s as though all the notes I’ve taken in the last month have fallen on me at once. A month as long as a year. Six full notebooks. How I manage to decipher them after all this time? I’ve never made a journey so dense with encounters, and all that lived experience turns into weight, ballast. I’ve been working meticulously, maybe too much, like a botanist or entomologist, gathering, recording, reproducing, investigating with a magnifying glass.

Just before six, just to pass the time, I start rummaging through my pack and discover that my rigid blue notebook that I’ve been filling with drawings isn’t there. I look again: nothing. Nothing, nothing. A month’s work up in smoke. I’d drawn the little Belarusian houses, Lithuanian beer labels, Norwegian road signs, the Cyrillic menus from the inns in Murmansk. I curse, dripping with sweat. The idea of going back up into the mountains above Lviv without a car is simply crazy; plus, I don’t have enough time for such a long detour. I’m desperate. But just as I’m getting ready to resign myself, out comes the damn thing from a side pocket as dark as night, and for a second, its seventy drawings seem to shine in the semidarkness like the figures of a magic lantern.

The book was like a magic lantern for me. I read, I followed, tracing the route in my big cloth-bound atlas, Followed the faint but seductive light, and I thought of all the places I would never see — because, realistically, Rumiz’s trip was not the sort I’m about to embark on now, a grandmother of three, with time constraints and perhaps not the stamina I had as a younger woman, roaming through Europe with a backpack stuffed with maps and a notebook of my own (though not perhaps the drawing skills of this author). But a magic lantern, because it shone light on a particular small riddle I’m trying to solve. Not a full and revealing light but a light of innuendo (which sounds like something Wallace Stevens might have written). For the past five or six years, I’ve been trying to figure out the geographies, physical and otherwise, of my father’s parents. They emigrated to North America in the early years of the 20th century and their Europe was not the Europe of today. The borders have shifted. They were citizens of places that no longer exist as political entities. But I know a few things and occasionally I learn a little more. In the town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, not too far from where my grandfather was born in what is now Ukraine, though he would have called himself Bukovynian, Paolo Rumiz meets an elderly couple, Viktor and Lyuba. They sit on the banks of the Smotrych River, a tributary of the Dniester, and remember the Jews who were herded out of town by the Germans (“They killed them in a village not far from here, called Mikraion. The ground was red with blood.”), the old days when the black earth of this granary of Europe could have fed half the world, the skilled workmanship of the those who built the wooden church of Karavasari: “Take a good look at it. It doesn’t have even a single nail. Iron was not to be used, as on the old boats. Iron pierced the flesh of our Lord. It was built with joints.” And if not my grandfather’s family, these could have been cousins, Lyuba perhaps a daughter of the woman on the left in this photograph from my grandfather’s small hoard of personal belongings, a woman who resembles him so closely that I suspect she must have been his sister, left behind when he came first to Franklin Furnace and then to Alberta where my Canadian story begins.

two-women

So a book I picked up with some curiosity but not much expectation takes me to a place I am somehow a part of:

The first stars come out. Viktor has gone to close his dovecote. Lyuba invites us to come back tomorrow morning to drink some fresh goat’s milk, We climb slowly back up to the castle on a labyrinth of stairs. From the top, we look back down on the lights of Karavarai with all the characters of the story — the Turks, the Jews, the Poles, the merchants, the boatmen, and the horses drinking at the river. There’s also Lyuba, going back inside the house with her goats, and nearby a group of young people pitching their tent for the night on an emerald-green meadow next to the river. Still father, a horse grazing. They’re all moving inside the same story, written long ago.

redux: “Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms.”

Note: this was 4 years ago and this morning, re-reading, I was surprised to realize I was revising “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”,  an essay that is central to my Blue Portugal & Other Essays. I didn’t know then that the collection would be finished, would be published, and that a copy would sit on my desk to remind me of how the thinking and writing I do gradually accumulates until, voila, a book….

morning swim

Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This has a wonderful post this morning, a review of Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth. It’s a book I’d like to read, and will. I’ve been reading books about water lately, about swimming, about various kinds of immersion. Jessica Lee’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir was so beautiful and so brave that I began to plot ways of swimming in winter. Wait, I do swim in winter, though in a pool, not the lakes Jessica has found near Berlin, where she lives. I swim daily in Ruby Lake from June to late September and then it’s the Pender Harbour Aquatic Centre, where my children learned to swim more than 30 years ago, and where the lifeguards do their best to save my lane for me, the one closest to the big windows and on the side of the pool because otherwise I can’t keep straight.

I’ve been revising a long essay on rivers and the venous system, mostly because it keeps getting rejected and I return to it with a nervous eye, wondering what to do to make it something more attractive to readers. I loved writing the early drafts. I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, not in prose, so I used both margins to justify different parts of the text. I wanted the typography to echo the text. I wanted the text to meander on the page as a river meanders through a landscape and our veins and arteries carry our blood through our bodies. (Writing this description, or justification, I realize how this might be the reason no one wants to publish it. It looks odd. It uses space in an unexpected way. But who wants to keep doing the same old, same old?)

Here’s a little of the essay, a section justified to the right margin (though some sections move back and forth between margins, as a swimmer moves through water):

8. Deep Venous drainage system

The fibular vein. Anterior tibial vein. Posterior tibial vein. The three become the popliteal vein at the knee; and then that vein enters the thigh, via a passageway called the adductor canal, as the femoral vein. These are the veins where the thrombosis formed, a clot poised like a temporary island, breaking free, travelling into my pulmonary system where it lodged as an embolism, threatening my heart.

My heart never knew it was threatened. My heart grew large with love that time, in anticipation of a third grandchild, surrounded by other family members, hearing their voices, sitting with them at the long table we’d eaten at for more than three decades. My heart, unaware, as I tried to catch my breath. It never knew it was threatened. It was filled with love, it was heavy with love.

And other minor veins drain into the femoral vein, like small creeks. The femoral vein graciously receives its tributaries as rivers receive theirs, the threads of mountain courses, of run-off, of bog-dark sweet creekwater, limestone, gritty, clear as mirror glass, dense with salmon, lively with mayflies and dragonflies catching fire, of rivulets, right-bank, left-bank, forked, streamlet, greater saphenous vein, which usually receives the external pudendal vein as well as the superficial epigastric vein, and the superficial circumflex iliac vein.

When I go for my swim at the local pool, I see the older women whose class is finishing just as I enter the water for my laps. They are thin, large, stooped, high-stepping, and lame. On their legs, the story of their lives thus far. Varicose veins, spider veins, venous insufficiency, superficial phlebitis, swellings and dark bruisings, lymphedema: some of them use walkers or canes to help them into and out of the water, to the hot-tub where they are helped down the stairs. But in the pool—sometimes I arrive early enough to see this—they raise their arms, they float, they are light as birds in the clear water while gentle music plays and the instructor leads their movements from the walkway at the edge. In the hot-tub after, their heads above the warm froth, they are beautiful, talking among themselves as the music continues and I swim my laps, listening to them.

…listen to your suppliants voice, come, and benignant in these rites rejoice;
Give plenteous Seasons, and sufficient wealth, and pour; in lasting streams, continued Health.

Once I told them, You look like goddesses, all of you, there in the water, so graceful as you raise your arms. Join us, one of them says, smiling, using her cane to walk unsteadily to the change room. My own legs are uncertain rivers, uncertain streams, their courses changing, islands forming of my own blood, its platelets and fibrins turned semi-solid.

last year the Casablanca lilies…

casablanca

…by the front door were filled with tree frogs. One morning, with my grandsons, I counted 6. This year, we’ve seen a few frogs here and there–one on a watering can, one by the kitchen window, a tiny one on the kale as we were cutting greens for a hortopita–

small frog

but there aren’t anywhere near the numbers of previous years. Yesterday, before dinner, Forrest went with his sons to look for snakes on the bluff over the old orchard. In years past, that area was always good for snakes. But they didn’t see a single one. I do see them in the vegetable garden but do I see as many as I always have? I don’t think so. We used to see toads. Not now. We haven’t done anything to spoil their habitat, not up here where we leave piles of rocks for snakes, grow dense vines around the house for both the cool they offer in the heat of summer and for the frogs. I have two water areas, one an old claw-footed bathtub, the other a half barrel, where the tree frogs can breed and where their tadpoles can feed on algae and duckweed. Maybe this is simply an off-year. I hope that’s true and that it’s not a sign of the future. Another sign, like the dying western red cedars, the diminished salmon runs. What kind of future would that be? I don’t want to know.

I have to say there are lots of bees. Lots of wasps. The Steller’s jays have returned for their daily seeds. Deer keep passing through, pausing on the edge of the grass to browse. When I swim in the mornings, dragonflies and swallows make their long loopy stitches over the surface of the lake. This summer will be added to the codex of our years, written in pollen, the resin from the Douglas firs, the silvery scribble of slugs passing over the patio, feathers, leaf miner trails in the columbines, tendrils of wisteria reaching up to the highest roof.

My curtains are rough white linen and they filter moonlight. Some evenings I still walk out in my cotton nightdress to pluck slugs from the lettuces, watch for deer who bring their fawns to eat rose canes escaping the fence. How many generations of deer, how many of bears lying in wait for the apples to ripen as they turn over stones on the path for the abundance of ants? Four, or seven, or thirty-two. And even the dogs, long dead, are racing in circles around the garden fence. One of them loved blackberries, one ate salal from the bushes along the driveway. In the dense woods a varied thrush adjusts its pitch, another answers from the understory. The robin nest is filled again with soft blue eggs. The weasel has yet to appear by the window, though the curtains are now open, the roses are blooming.
           –“Love Song”, included in Blue Portugal & Other Essays (University of Alberta Press, 2022)