“Forgotten, but remembering/ourselves as no one will ever remember us.”


I’ve said this before but I become more and more convinced every day that the world is becoming a perilous place. I remember the Cold War, as much as one can remember something that formed the backdrop of the time one grew up in. I was born in 1955 and my father was in the Navy. We never had a bomb shelter or anything like that but there was the sense that politics were fraught, that the war my father had fought in (very tangentially) wasn’t really over because, well, there was Korea, then Vietnam, and god knows what would happen with the Soviet Union.

But I was a child, then a teenager. And when I was a teenager, the biggest threat seemed to be environmental. I remember attending a rally at the Provincial Legislature protesting the nuclear weapons test on the island of Amchitka, in Alaska. When I was in university, I was reading the literature that coming out of the Soviet Union, not just Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose big books were everywhere, but the poets: Osip Mandelstam (and his wife Nadezhda’s extraordinary memoirs, Hope Against Hope, and Hope Abandoned), Anna Akhmatova, and others. Later, in my 30s, I encountered the work of Irina Ratushinskaya, reading her poetry—No, I’m Not Afraid and Pencil Letter particularly come to mind—and her memoir of 3 1/2 years in a labour camp, Grey is the Colour of Hope.

Hope is the thing, isn’t it? You have it and then you find it’s fading. For a time, I thought the world would improve. We knew enough about what it took to keep ecological systems healthy and intact that we couldn’t fail to act, could we? We watched the Berlin Wall fall in 1989, we watched (we thought) the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991, and can anyone forget the 1994 general election in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela becoming President? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (finally) established in Canada in 2008? Or the 2008 U.S. election and how Barack Obama and his beautiful family seemed to hold such promise for modern democracy? I kept thinking, it’s so late in our collective history for what ought to be long-accepted as the natural course of events to be unfolding but it’s better late than never. Wasn’t it? And wouldn’t things improve? Weren’t these the openings we’d waited for, agitated for, voted for? For the citizens of countries that were in a position to set aside the old and ugly racial, gender, and geopolitical divisions, ours included (of course)? We could truly address the environmental devastations and the economic inequities. The food insecurities.

But it’s getting later and later and those openings are closing, or at least that’s what it seems to me.

These are days when I’m glad (in a way) to live on the edge of the world. To sit with my beloved and talk about poetry and to watch tree frogs sleeping on the leaf of a lily. I haven’t given up hope, not exactly, but I agree with Mr. Dylan that, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.

no one can see me

One of the poets I was remembering this morning was Nathaniel Tarn. I first read him in the mid-1970s; Where Babylon Ends and Lyrics for the Bride of God come to mind as the collections I loved. There was a spaciousness to his work, a wide-ranging gathering of materials that negotiated a world full of mystery and beauty.

Before the Snake

Sitting, facing the sun, eyes closed. I can hear the
sun. I can hear the bird life all around for miles.
It flies through us and around us, it takes up all
space, as if we were not there, as if we had never
interrupted this place. The birds move diorami-
cally through our heads, from ear to ear. What
are they doing, singing in this luminous fall. It is
marvelous to be so alone, the two of us, in this
garden desert. Forgotten, but remembering
ourselves as no one will ever remember us. The
space between the trees, the bare ground-sand
between them, you can see the land’s skin which
is so much home. We cannot buy or sell this
marvelous day. I can hear the sun and, within
the sun, the wind which comes out of the world’s
lungs from immeasurable depth; we catch only
a distant echo. Beyond the birds there are per-
sons carrying their names like great weights.
Just think: carrying X your whole life, or Y, or Z.
Carrying all that A and B and C around with you,
having to be A all the time, B, or C. Here you can
be the sun, the pine, the bird. You can be the
breathing. I can tell you, I think this may be
Eden. I think it is.

—Nathaniel Tarn

on heaven’s door

When we drove into the Waterton Lakes park, we were listening to Dylan. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” A song kind of melodramatic and full of guns but still somehow poignant. If you can listen to a whole song for a single line, a refrain, this is the one.

There were so many moments when I felt I was at that door. Early morning, walking along Pass Creek (this is one of its names and for obvious reasons, it’s the one I’ll use), through the red rock chasm, glacier lilies in profuse blooms on the slope. Driving the bison paddock where male bison were in the wallows and the females were settled along the edges of a small  lake, their young stilty-legged beside them. And mountain bluebirds on fenceposts—


Last night we had a drink at the bar in the Prince of Wales Hotel. We didn’t stay there but I thought I’d like to ascend its long driveway and have a glass of something sparkling as the light faded. The view of the lake in its bowl of mountain was sublime. When we wandered out into the lobby afterwards — a huge baronial hall, actually — John saw the dining room and decided we should have breakfast there this morning on our way to Pincher Creek, then west on the Crows Nest highway. We were the only ones there for the first while, eating our eggs Benedict (well, mine were Florentine) at a table overlooking that serene view, watching three bighorn sheep come towards the tall windows, stop just in time, then settle on the grass in front of us.

breakfast companions

Now in Creston where we just ate delicious Indian food and drank some local Baillie-Grohman wine, a 2016 Récolte Blanche, lovely with the spicy lamb and paneer. Tomorrow we drive west towards home, through the Boundary country where my grandfather worked in 1911 at Phoenix and where I always feel my heart widen in those open spaces between Grand Forks and Osoyoos.  If we’re lucky, there will be bluebirds near Princeton and we’ll watch for the beautiful St. Ann’s church near Hedley. If heaven’s door opened, I know what I hope to see.

silver dagger, boots of spanish leather

kelly's quilt.jpg
Quilt, basting stitches not yet snipped out.

I’ve been in the kitchen for part of the day, finishing up a quilt for my granddaughter’s second birthday. I stitch and think, think and sew. Her dad said he’s building bunkbeds in her room — another baby is expected in late August — and so it’s kind of serendipitous that I’ve made a quilt for one of those beds: the one she will sleep in. When I see her, I love the times when her parents go out in the evenings and I get to put her to bed. I wrap her in a blanket and sing old ballads to her. She never takes her eyes off my face while I’m singing. Her serious blue eyes, the tiny collection of curls at the nape of her neck (this is most of her hair; she has very little anywhere else): well, there’s something deeply lovely about these times. And what do I sing? Mostly the Child Ballads, the wonderful old songs of England and Scotland collected by Francis Child in the second half of the 19th century. I’ve loved them ever since I heard early recordings of Joan Baez singing “Mary Hamilton” and Pentangle’s version of that murder ballad, “The Cruel Sister”. I don’t have a great voice but Kelly doesn’t know that. And she’s a captive audience, a child in her grandmother’s arms.

We have a satellite system supplying our internet connection and our television reception. I don’t know how to turn the television on — I don’t quite see the point of televsion unless it’s used for movies I know I’ll love; otherwise I’d rather be in my bed reading. But the days when I’m quilting are perfect days for the Folk Roots channel. And today for some reason the old ballads kept coming on. And oh, they take me back. To my university years when I was listening to folk music as carefully as I was reading Milton. Those songs educated my heart while Donne’s Holy Sonnets educated my mind. Just now, Nanci Griffith singing “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which I know isn’t exactly ancient; but surely Bob Dylan had those rich songs in mind when he wrote it. It inspired the title essay of my book, Red Laredo Boots. We had Other Voices, Other Rooms on our stereo system in our old GMC pickup truck the winter we drove up into the Fraser and Thompson Canyons in search of history, our children in the backseat. And so it inflected the drive:

On the Ferry From Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, That Same Day

While the children walk the decks to stretch their legs after a long day’s drive, I am sitting with this notebook to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Of course I have because I see I haven’t mentioned trying on a Lee jean jacket in the Fields store in Merritt or looking at the photograph in the Ashcroft Museum of the couple from the Upper Hat Creek Valley, he holding a cigarette and she, a cat in her arms. Who were they and where did they end up? Behind them you can see the evidence of hayfields and tall cottonwoods to picnic under when the work is finished. They look so young and proud in the air of 1913, before the War, before the fire that burned down most of Ashcroft, before the young men left nearby Walhachin for battles they’d never return from. We’ve taken lots of photographs, of course, and will put them in our album to tell something of this ramble. The truck still smells of sage, though the sprig hanging from the mirror is withered and dry. And every time I hear Nanci Griffith sing, I’ll regret that I didn’t at least try on the red Laredo boots:

Take heed, take heed of the western wind.
                           Take heed of stormy weather.
                           And yes, there is something you can send back to me.
                           Send me boots of Spanish leather.

from Red Laredo Boots, New Star Books, 1996.

Just now, “Silver Dagger”:

Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother
She’s sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.

It’s one I’ll have to work on for singing Kelly to sleep. Maybe under the new quilt, a friendly patchwork for a child to dream under. And the songs are cautionary, in all the right ways.

My daddy is a handsome devil
He’s got a chain five miles long,
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.

Playlist for summer

After weeks of rain, a time when the province’s rivers flooded, when cherry growers mourned the condition of this year’s crop, when the berry growers in the Fraser Valley prayed for sun, when the roses lost their petals in sodden clumps, when driving home in darkness meant being alert for frogs on the highway, when the slugs (I swear) grew to the size of mice, well, yesterday afternoon the sun came out. And we are promised weeks of it. The UV index this morning is 7. Or maybe 8.

So it’s time to bring out the summer music. I confess I’m not really sure what a playlist is. I don’t have any of the latest technology, I still play cds and have only once or twice downloaded a song. What I’ve always loved about vinyl records and then cassette tapes and compact discs is the sense of narrative in the playing of them. You start at the beginning and you listen to the whole thing (mostly). You realize that the musician had a particular kind of listening in mind as he or she decided on the sequence of pieces. There’s a trajectory and the listener is part of that.

Last night friends came for dinner and we listened to a collection of Romska balada, a cycle of Roma songs that are individually beautiful but form an extraordinary extended expression of longing, sorrow, prayer, and joy. Somehow this was perfect music for sitting under grape leaves while the sapsuckers flew from tree to tree and we talked of absent children, gardens, and waited for the lamb to finish grilling.

So what would my summer playlist sound like? Some Dylan, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”, played by the marvellous Hilary Hahn, Steve Earle singing “Jerusalem” (and not Blake’s Jerusalem, though maybe I’d want that too), two “Four Strong Winds” – Ian Tyson and Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris singing “Boulder to Birmingham”, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Drew Minter  singing “Son nata a lagrimar” from Giulio Cesare, a duet that gives me goose bumps just typing the title, Dire Straits (“Wild West End”), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in its entirety, and then maybe Jean Redpath singing the songs of Robbie Burns. I’m sure I’ve left out key elements but it looks like I’ll have the whole summer to perfect my list.