“She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweed.”

eel grass

Two passages from “blueprints”. a work-in-progress.

She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweeds. Her blueprints are a hoard of perfect quilt blocks waiting to be arranged and stitched. They are like scraps of summer sky. They are a world made perfect, young algae, fruiting examples, a dreamworld, a blue heaven, where the tiniest plants float through a blue sea, nothing to damage them, almost two hundred years old and as alive as anything I’ve ever seen.

Fucus vesiculosus, Polypodium vulgare, Leucojam varium, Cystopteris dentaria, Asplenium septentrionale, Punctaria latifolia, Bortrychium lunaria, blue paper haunted with their images, as I am haunted by them, by a woman who sought, identified, collected, and dried plants, immersed sheets of paper in ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, arranged the plants, set glass over them, positioned them in sunlight, timed, waited, rinsed the sheets in clear water, and left a vast garden of white on blue for us to wonder at centuries after.

He made the drawings. He sat at the desk overlooking Burrard Inlet after his teaching job finished for the day, putting aside his poems. He made marks, erased, used the three-sided ruler I sometimes take out for special quilt measurements. (Nothing is wasted.) He rolled the big sheets of paper with our house carefully imagined, no perspective, nor the distance from the eaves to the peak, but a way to see our way to building the platforms, the walls sheathed in plywood, the joists and beams to carry our roof aloft, and he took them to a place off Marine Drive in North Vancouver where they were reproduced by the process that replaced blueprint (not unlike the process used by Anna Atkins to preserve what she loved in white lines on blue paper, the negative image of what she placed on a page in sunlight). The term “blueprint” is still used for reproductions of architectural drawings and floor plans, though when John took our drawings to the office to have copies made, the process had become a form of xerography. No longer Prussian blue, no longer a page of sky showing how a house might be viewed from an angle impossible for me to apprehend. Now we’d probably hold up a phone or my small Samsung tablet, loaded with plans we could zoom in on, scroll, turn to see alternate views; looking at the little screen, we’d determine the dimensions of the lumber we needed to cut and piece together to make a house. A home.

“But this is all in the future.”

floor plan

My current essay-in-progress is one I’m calling “Blueprint”. I made some notes towards it a few months ago and then it sat around as I worked on other essays, finished a novella, made a quilt, moped a bit during the cold winter. But the other night I woke just after midnight, came down to my desk, and it suddenly called. I have a few things to try to bring together in this piece and I won’t say much about that now but this morning I got out the house-plans John worked on so labouriously in the winter and spring of 1980-81. I remember how he’d set up a workspace in his study on the second floor of the house we rented in North Vancouver. He had the most amazing view: Burrard Inlet, the city lights of Vancouver laid out beyond his window, and on clear days he could see over to Point Grey. He had a few drafting implements and a copy of the building code and somehow he drew plans for a house. I know that the process for reproducing the plans wasn’t actually blueprinting at that time– I think these plans were actually xerographed– but people still called them blueprints. Do they now? Probably not.

So I’m writing about those plans as well as the beautiful Czech modrotisk, or block-printed indigo fabric, also called blueprint. I’m writing about Anna Atkins and her early 19th c. cyanotypes of British algae, ferns, and flowering plants. And I’m writing about time. Because honestly it’s on my mind almost always. As I look at John’s plans and remember the whole hullabaloo of moving our lives here (at least part of the time) to a tent, with a few cooking pots, a Coleman stove, so that we could build a house (we were poets; how on earth did we imagine we could build a house? Well, we imagined it…), I realize it was almost exactly 38 years ago. Our first baby was two weeks old when we drove up the newly-constructed driveway and he will turn 38 in 8 days. When I write about that time, I am there in body and soul. I am listening to loons nesting on Sakinaw Lake and asking again, as we frame the opening for the window above the kitchen sink, if we can make the sill deep enough for a pot of geraniums.

from a work-in-progress:

What also happened as we planned the rectangles and how high the windows, how wide the doors, was that we had a baby. While we built the first two rectangles, he lived with us in our blue tent set up on a plywood (two sheets; 8×8) platform with a tarp extending over it for added protection from coastal rain. He slept with us under our down sleeping bag in its duvet cover. I bathed him in the one enameled tin basin we had in our camp kitchen (a homemade table under the tarp with a Coleman stove and a few battered saucepans), which was also our salad bowl, in water from Ruby Lake, brought up to the building site in a 10 gallon container. The well had yet to be drilled. The baby, who was Forrest, wore a toque at night because he had almost no hair.

And what happened before we moved in to the three rectangles (because a square is also a rectangle) with their bare plywood floors and no doors to the bedrooms, is another baby, not quite born as we lugged our furniture and boxes of books and the entire contents of a kitchen into the house, but arriving soon after. The first baby was a toddler by then, eager to climb ladders, find abandoned nails in corners, and not careful enough around the woodstove so that a corral had to be constructed from offcuts of 2x4s.

But this is all in the future. I am putting the house and its life before the drawings that conceived it. I want to write about the blueprints. How John drew rooms onto big sheets of paper, using special rulers and other measures, representing lintels, top-plates, the distances between windows, how a door might open in, or out, and how a life unfolds from what a pencil projects.