Last year

Last year we were in Ottawa for Canada Day. Oldest son worked at the Canadian Museum of History and we went to see the exhibits he’d developed in his 4 years there. It was wonderful week, with a few days in the Eastern Townships exploring on our own, and spending time with Forrest, Manon, and Arthur in Ottawa. On July 1st, we went over to the Museum to watch the huge screens showing what was going on across the river. It rained. We got soaked. But the crowds—huge and peaceful—made the whole evening so festive and lively. The fireworks were extraordinary. Manon took this photograph of starbursts and light above the Alexandra Bridge. We had to cross the bridge later on our walk back, though I confess we stopped at one point and called for an Uber ride for the last few kilometers home. (It was long after midnight and we’d had to walk miles already that day, as the buses in Ottawa couldn’t negotiate the huge crowds in front of the Parliament buildings.)


This year, we’re home. Just us. And it was a day of chores. John made the most ingenious door in a window of our utility room so that the cat Winter can let himself in and out because we are weary of his nocturnal habits. He goes outside after his dinner but then he wants in around, oh, 3 or 4 a.m. He comes to the window right above my pillows and either cries in the most piteous way or else he pummels the French door leading from the sun-room off our bedroom to the deck. You are dreaming, dreaming of something wonderful, and then you wake to the strangest sound that you realize is cat feet on glass. Thus the door in the window, the place where the small screen was. There’s a pine shelf he can easily jump up to and then a chair in the utility room so that he can hop down. After the door was finished, John returned to the current project, which is deconstructing the little deck off our printshop, so that he can salvage any usable lumber and rebuild to ensure another 25 years of safe entry and exit into the place where we print our High Ground Press broadsheets.

I took manure around various areas—cabbage patch, salad boxes, potted tomatoes and tomatillos, the beans that are climbing up their arrangements of poles to the sky. Because it’s been so wet, I was thinking that everything needed a good feed and the compost box is pretty much empty.

Last year we were in Ottawa and this year, home. But home, in a way, is the whole country. I’ve lived on both coasts and have been in the north, though not yet to Nunavut. The landscapes change, the accents (and even the languages) change, but somehow it does feel like it’s all home. We have our difficult history to come to terms with but we also value things that sound so small when you use words for them. Civility. Reasonable manners. Care and kindness for the most part. An extraordinary diversity.

This morning I was lying in my bed, drinking my coffee, and I could hear the radio downstairs. I wasn’t really listening, but then I was. Because it was Joni Mitchell, singing one of my favourite songs, the one I used to hear when I lived on Crete and the tavernas played Blue over and over again. I loved it then and I love it still.

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

In those years, I thought I might live elsewhere, I couldn’t imagine a future in which I lived on a piece of land for nearly 40 years, but I live here, with great joy. Is it the country that’s in my blood like holy wine? In a way it is. There’s lots of hand-wringing about our place in the world, our history with its difficult chapters. Last year I wrote this after our Canada Day in Ottawa and it still rings true for me:

From where we were, we couldn’t see the tipis by the main stage in front of Parliament. There’s a lot wrong with our country and it’s a good time to remember those things. It’s too late in our history for the injustices to go unchecked and unacknowledged. Economic and educational disparity, poor water: all of it, any of it, is unacceptable. But we also have a country in which great things are possible and we need to insist on fairness and equality. Looking at all the faces around me, listening to them sing, watching the fathers hold their children up to see the beautiful lights in the sky, and the mothers consoling babies for whom the noise was too much, the teenagers waving wands decorated with maple leaves and carrying little flags, I felt I was part of something big and beautiful. Not perfect. But it’s up to us to try harder, to insist that those we elect work towards a better system that serves us all well, not just some of us. Or maybe even most of us.

“in a way remembering”

Years ago, in Yellowknife, I saw an exhibit of Gwich’in caribou skin clothing at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. I was enthralled by the gorgeous handwork, the unity of practical and beautiful, and this morning, looking for something else on my shelves, I found the book I bought at the time, Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember, by Judy Thompson and Ingrid Kritsch. It tells the story of Gwich’in women brought together to sew traditional summer clothing using some 19th century examples from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (later renamed the Canadian Museum of History). It’s worth looking for, 143 in the Mercury Series. Women carefully examine the quillwork and beadwork used as embellishment and realize that many of them are things they’ve adapted over the years. They know how to do this work even though perhaps they haven’t worked with skins for some time.

I see great possibilities with this technique [porcupine quillwork]. I think what I’d start off with is just putting it in tiny places, like the collar or the pocket, before I start anything extravagant. I’d like to just keep things simple. Even in my fabric art, I think I see possibilities. It would make a pretty good rainbow or Northern Lights. (Margaret Donovan, Tsiigehtchic, 2001)

I’ve been working on my indigo quilt this weekend, having replenished my shell button supply at the wonderful Button Button.


I use akoya buttons but if I had unlimited funds for such things, I’d choose abalone for their green-y splendor. And I know what Margaret Donovan means. I’ve been concluding my quilted spirals with a single button, using varying sizes depending on what feels right.

recent spiral

But what I’d really love to do, and maybe work up to trying, is trying to gather firelight into the stitching, trying for the kind of light I see looking into water. The Gwich’in women had each other to work with and I sew alone, in my quiet kitchen. This work is so meditative. I stitch and release what I can do nothing about, I gather all my hopes and my love for the world into each spiral. Some days I come into the kitchen and see the quilt waiting in a wicker chair by the door and I’m filled with pleasure at the thought of time spent sewing, thinking, and yes, in a way remembering.

waiting blossoms


a gathering

This morning I woke early, my body still on Ottawa time. At 4 a.m., there was a little light, enough to see a weasel pause for a moment on the rose canes surrounding the window beside my bed. When I first saw movement, I thought it must be a bird but then the silhouette was unmistakable. On Monday morning we had the pleasure of seeing the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in the company of our son Forrest who worked on the galleries, researching and designing exhibits. I’d heard about many of the stories and ideas he’d helped to bring to life but seeing the final project was wonderful. We spent two hours and will have to return (many times) to spend enough time to really see the whole Hall as it deserves to be experienced.

But the weasel. In the first light of morning I remembered the case of small ivory animals from the Dorset culture (700-2500 years ago). When I looked at the beautiful little creatures, possibly amulets, I cried. Each one carved so carefully, each one animating the ivory with the spirit of the animal it represented. My favourites were the weasel and the pair of swans:

dorset weasel


And the other moment when I cried was seeing this moment from a bison hunt in what’s now Alberta, preserved forever:

an old death

At home now, remembering a week with Forrest, Manon, and Arthur, I am sorting through photographs, maps (because John and I spent a couple of days in the Eastern Townships and we are too old to use GPS, so there are paper maps to smooth and file…), bits and pieces from my pack and case (a pottery dish from Lisa McNeill in Magog, now hanging on my kitchen wall; a bag of dried chanterelles from the Byward Market). And am about to set a new image on my desktop, three generations walking into the light:

walking, with sticks

Shadowing William Scouse

A few years ago, my son Forrest Pass, a historian at the Canadian Museum of History, told me that he was in the process of looking at (with hope of acquiring for the Museum) a remarkable diary. William Scouse and his three compatriots had been among those who’d discovered gold in the Klondike. Scouse had kept a diary, a practical account of his daily activities, arriving at Dyea (near Skagway, at the foot of Chilkoot Pass) in 1896, traveling overland — remember those photographs from social studies classes in grade school of the ascent of the Chilkoot and White Passes? Not a gentle Sunday walk —  and by boat (which they built at Bennett Lake for the passage to the Yukon River), finally arriving at Eldorado Creek that fall.

It’s country I’ve traveled through, though not on foot nor by homemade boat. In 2011, John and I left the wonderful Whitehorse Poetry Festival, where John had been invited to read, to go by bus and train to Skagway, Alaska. The bus took us through Carcross

in carcross.JPG

to Fraser where we boarded the White Pass train to follow the narrow-gauge railroad to Skagway. This railroad was built in 1898, during the Klondike Gold Rush, and it’s an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. That journey was spectacular.

white pass.JPG

We took the train in late June but imagine the Pass in winter, imagine it in snow. There were remnants of ramshackle shelters along the way and old bits of iron, and I was haunted by the memory of this photograph, the one we studied in school:


William Scouse walked the Chilkoot Pass — it runs parallel to White Pass. He walked it before the stampeders of 1898 but the route was the same. Difficult and treacherous. And everything necessary for the journey had to be carried a distance of 53 kilometres to Bennett Lake (where of course boats had to be built!), often over many trips.

Forrest has written a fascinating article, “Unearthing Eldorado”,  about the diary of William Scouse, wonderfully illustrated with period photographs, and it appears in the December-January issue of Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver). I loved reading it because it took me back to my (admitedly comfortable) explorations in that country more than a century later, and because, well, it’s lovely to read something by my own son who has always shared my love for history but who has a much more meticulous mind. I’m so proud of him.

Our trip took us by rental car to Dawson City, a place dense with history. We spent four nights there, walking its streets under a sun that almost never set — it was early July and I remember meandering back to our B&B from a late dinner and marveling at the light. We could hear the river and if we could listened hard, we could hear voices too. Maybe one of them was William Scouse alerting his partners to nuggets in the paydirt. We went to Eldorado Creek and saw the remnants of old operations. And it was hard not to dream in the endless light, on the streets of Dawson City:

Dawson City.JPG

icosahedron, bordered with cotton

While in Ottawa last week, I had a little peek at quilts in the curatorial wing of the Canadian Museum of History (formerly Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau — thank you, Forrest! — and my hands kept twitching. I wanted to make something! I wanted to work on my own quilt, which has been longer in the thinking stage than anything I’ve ever made. This is because of the long process of working out how to replicate the images I wanted to use. I’m much better at the doing than the planning. Strategies for this particular quilt have changed many times and so there hasn’t been much sewing — until yesterday, when I cut out and stitched the top and bottom borders on all the blocks. And this morning I’ve just finished the sides of the first block. It’s a model of Euclid’s icosahedron and I love how elegant it is. An icosahedron is a polyhedron with 20 equivalent equilateral triangle faces, 12 polyhedron vertices, and 30 polyhedron edges. In the Timaeus, Plato equated the polyhedra with elements and the icosahedron’s element is water. This block hasn’t been pressed so you can see the ruckles in this photograph. And the colours aren’t quite true. But I love the cotton, something from my quilter’s stash which I could never find the right use for, and I don’t have enough of it to line up the pattern at the corners perfectly. But every quilt is a a version of the Platonic ideal, I suppose, and maybe the next one will be better…

icosahedron block

imagine the days

Mid-way through our week in Ottawa. The days are filled with deck-building (Forrest and John) —

P1100129delicious meals courtesy of Forrest and Manon —

P1100125sitting in Pressed Cafe and listening to poetry (John, Pearl Pirie, and Catherine Brunet), a lunch with Andrea Cordonier (who came prepared to work on the deck but torrential rain meant we stayed inside and talked instead: a pleasure…), and walks through Richelieu Park where trilliums are blooming and some sort of native lily will be in a few weeks (a leaf not unlike the Erythronium oregonum so I’m wondering if these are trout lilies?). Vanier is a neighbourhood of great diversity — old houses and a butcher and porches meeting the streets and a little Mexican restaurant (Ola Cocina where we sat at a sidewalk table and ate duck tacos which were so wonderful). Across Beechwood is Rockcliffe, entirely different, but we went there, to Jacobsons, to buy divine cheese (La Sauvagine, a washed-rind cheese from Quebec which I could happily eat for the rest of my life) and an elk pate I bought just for revenge (see previous posts about elk eating my garlic during a period of garden reconstruction and ongoing consumption of our orchard).

And imagine violets in the grass like weeds (I have a little bag of them wrapped in paper towel to take home with me to try around our patio, the same bag that brought kale seedlings here the other day and which are happily tucked into the vegetable garden as I write…) and brilliant cardinals in the trees. Imagine every step you take in this house being observed by Matilda:


And imagine a bedside table with two new gifts, from Forrest’s workplace (The Museum of Civilization or, no, it’s now the Canadian Museum of History): Sanatujut: Pride in Women’s Work (Copper and Caribou Inuit Clothing Traditions) and The Whaling Indians: Legendary Hunters.