The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.
–Song of Solomon, 1:16-17
For the last two days, I’ve been looking at photographs of my new grandson. In a week or so, John and I will travel to Ottawa to meet him, to hold him, to congratulate his parents. I think of how my own grandparents must’ve longed for such immediate gratification — I do have some photographs sent by my mother to my father’s parents (they were among the small leavings I took from my parents’ home after their deaths) and there are notes on the back to provide context: age of the children, the location of the photographs. Yesterday Forrest and Manon sent several images taken in the hospital and in response to my observation that Arthur’s hair seems dark, another photograph arrived to show the top of his beautiful head:
Forrest’s hair was the colour of a peach when he was born. Soft faint strawberry-blond. And there wasn’t much of it. (Still isn’t! Though it’s more russety now…) So how fascinating that this little baby has what looks like red hair too! When Forrest was born, we tried to think of where the red hair came from. My father remembered one red-haired sister and also several sisters with blue eyes. They were half-sisters, sharing a mother — his mother. No one in my immediate family had red hair or blue eyes. In John’s family, his father had fair hair and blue eyes, as did his sister. (I say “did” for his sister because her hair darkened over the years, though her eyes are still blue!)
I tried to puzzle through the mysteries of genetics in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, and re-reading it, I see that I was already wondering about this baby as soon as I knew he was in process! I was musing about what had happened with the peas I’d saved for three years from seed originally purchased at the Mendel Museum in Brno. The seeds were wrinkled and they produced strong vines with white blooms. For two years the peas were wrinkled and then, last spring, this was what I found in the dried pods I’d saved for planting in 2015:
from “Euclid’s Orchard”: In four generations, the Mendel peas have taken different directions, perhaps because of their proximity to the Mammoth Melting Sugars or maybe because mysterious calculations under their own particular skins. I’ve planted them and await their appearance with all the anticipation of awaiting the birth of a child. Which we are also anticipating, in October. A second grandchild; the first being Kelly Samra, born on July 17, 2014, to her mathematician father, Brendan, and her physicist mother, Cristen. She is beautiful, with clear pink skin, blue eyes, and not enough hair to determine its colour. She is lanky like her mother and father—and shares her mother’s blue eyes, which are also her uncle and aunt’s blue eyes from our side of the family, and from her great-grandfather Ben Pass. And who will the new baby be? She or he has a red-haired father, with blue eyes—my older son—and a dark-haired dark-eyed mother. The maternal grandparents have lived for many generations on either side of the Ottawa River, in Quebec and Ontario, and there is an Algonquin great-great-grandmother in the not so distant past.
I’m puzzled. Last year I grew three varieties of Italian pole beans. (Some years I find myself on Commercial Drive in late winter and the Home Hardware there has an amazing selection of Italian seeds. Not the McKenzie Gusto ones — though maybe they have those too — but Larosa Emanuele, from Bari. It’s hard to resist the beautiful packages which contain more seeds by far than their North American counterparts and are cheap to boot.) I planted a romano type, “Smeraldo”, a long green one called “Nano Fin de Bagnols” which is sort of like a French filet, and “Trionfo Violetta”. I’ve grown these before but last year’s crop was astonishing and as well as pickling and freezing many pounds of beans, I left some on the vines to mature so I could dry them for seed. I didn’t keep them separate because quite honestly I love them all and didn’t mind them climbing the poles together and providing many pickings of all three varieties. The seeds were different, though — some of them brown, some of them white. (And true to my careless nature, I didn’t keep track of which was which. More on this in a moment.)
When I planted my beans, I put a selection under each pole of the teepees I’d erected in the bed I call “Wave”. Nice deep soil, well-nourished with compost, mushroom manure, alfalfa pellets, a handful of kelp meal, and a handful of lime. The slugs were around as the seeds were germinating so I had to keep poking in more seeds to compensate for the sad little sprouts with the tell-tale silver trail leading away from them. And then it got warm and the plants went crazy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been picking colanders most days. And they’re delicious. But here’s the puzzle:
Today’s picking is unnusual in that there’s actually a green romano bean in the lot. Every other picking has been exclusively purple. I’d say that the mix I saved was about equal parts two greens — the long filets and the romano-type — and one part “Trionfo Violetta”. I am no botanist but I believe (and please please someone tell me if I’m wrong) that beans are almost entirely self-pollinating, that by the time the beautiful flowers open, they have pollinated themselves (the anthers are pushed up against the stigma inside the unopened flower), and that cross-pollination is very rare.
So why are my beans all purple? All of three kinds were vigorous last year. I saved seed from good strong pods and all the beans were dried on newspaper on my kitchen floor in exactly the same way. I don’t actually mind. These beans are fabulous. (Favourite way to eat them is steamed briefly, cooled, tossed with hazelnut oil and lemon juice, some clipped tarragon and chives, and then some toasted chopped hazelnuts over top.)
A few years ago I visited Mendel’s monastery in Brno and should have paid more attention to the details of his genetic experiments. Instead, I pushed my face against the case of his pruning tools — so elegant and so well-cared for — and looked for ages at the detailed notes he kept about weather. Walking through the garden, I kept imagining him with his magnificent patience and attentive mind, I kept wondering about his life, and, well, let’s just say it was an opportunity lost. I found out just how little I’d paid attention when I was trying to write about genetics in my “Euclid’s Orchard” essay this past year.
I’ve been working hard on a new extended essay and part of it is about genetics. Not in a scientific way — I barely passed Biology 12 — but more as a meditation on what we inherit and what we don’t. I’ve been growing peas I first obtained in the Mendel Museum giftshop in Brno in the winter of 2012 and keeping (very casual) notes on their progress. I’ve saved the seed each year since 2012. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, the seeds were smooth and yellow and produced vines with white flowers. Last fall, because I was busy, I simply dried some peas in their pods and saved them in an envelope, unshelled. When I opened them a few weeks ago to plant them, I was amazed to see what the 2014 peas produced as seed:
As I eagerly wait for each new photograph of my grand-daughter, and also anticipate the birth of her cousin in the fall, this extended project of saving seed and watching a cultivar gradually change and adapt over the years becomes all the more intriguing. So much can be predicted and so much is mysterious.
We’re in the middle of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival here on the Sunshine Coast. Last night audiences were treated to “String Theory”, an event of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart. The musicians are truly fine — and it always astonishes me that people who gather together from all over — for this year’s festival, they’ve come from Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, and New York City — for rehearsals on Monday or Tuesday play so wonderfully together by the first concert on Thursday evening. (That was “New Sensations” and it was sensational.)
Last night, listening to Mozart’s String Quartet No. 6 in E flat major, K614 beautifully played by Lara St. John, Joyce Lai, Yehonatan Berick, Ian Clarke, and Rachel Mercer, I was taken back to Brno. Music does that. It carries in it memory and history, our own and the culture’s. In 2010 we were in Brno for a lively conference at Masaryk University. We had a few days to explore the city and John and I both fell in love with it (and have returned, and will return again, I hope). In front of the Reduta — a theatre where Mozart performed at the age of 11 — there is a sculpture presiding over both the theatre itself and the Zelný trh, or Cabbage Market.
It’s Mozart, of course — half impish boy, half angel. I think of this sculpture every time I hear his music — the playful and the divine, in perfect balance.
On that visit to Brno, our hosts arranged tickets for an evening of chamber opera at the Reduta. We sat in this room —
— and watched Second Movement’s performance of Bohuslav Martinu’s “The Knife’s Tears” and two short operas performed by the Ensemble Opera Diversa: Lukáš Sommer and Václav Havel’s” Ela, Hela and the Hitchhiking” and Ondrej Kyas and Pavel Drábek’s “The Pumpkin Demon in a Vegetarian Restaurant”. (I can’t seem to get all the diacritics to work here…) It was an exhilarating evening, made even better by the huge table of delicious food and many bottles of beautiful Moravian wines provided for the audience, not to mention the pumpkin confit cooked on stage during the performance of the last opera — can you imagine this? A prep line, the smell of ginger and garlic deliciously filling that glorious red room, and the cast graciously serving the audience after the last notes? As we walked back to our hotel that night, our route punctuated with the soft lights illuminating the Baroque facade of St. Thomas church, I asked John to remind me just why we were leaving Brno the next day. I wanted to stay forever.
And I was transported last night, in a similar way, but driving home down the dark highway, I knew I wasn’t leaving.
I’ve been thinking of Andrew Marvell and his garden lately as I work in ours and begin to see the results of all the work of February, March, and April when we reconstructed the whole area after drain field repairs and replanted the potted herbs, flowers, and even an apple tree which had patiently (I can only see it that way!) waited for us to return them to the soil.
“…their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid.” (from “The Garden”)
Most of the plants are thriving.
And mostly we are too. It’s a pleasure to pick kale each day and salad in the evenings. A pleasure to pull up a clump of spring onions, as green as anything dreamed of by Marvell. To guide the bean vines up their teepees, to see the Mendel peas climb their wire and see them begin to bloom. Last year I loved steaming these peas — I brought home the seeds from the Augustinian abbey in Brno where Mendel conducted his experiments with peas — with garlic scapes and the timing looks good for the combination this year too.
A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.
In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.
The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.