“it lives in my spine” (Leonard Cohen)


Yesterday we went down to the old orchard, now overgrown and returning to forest, and John bucked up some of the cedar logs left after some we had some work there 3 or 4 years ago. Cedar’s not a great firewood. It doesn’t burn as hot or as long as fir, maple, or alder. But we have the logs and they’ll provide some heat. After John’s double hip surgery in October, 2020, he was left with a paralyzed foot after a nerve was compressed during the procedure. We hoped for a complete recovery but two years have passed and that’s unlikely now. But it’s much better than it was. Using a chainsaw is possible now, for example, because his balance is better. So that’s why we were down in the orchard, him bucking and splitting, and me carrying logs to the back of our Element. Two years ago, a friend came with his son and they cut up a couple of the logs. I wrote about it here. At the time, looking out the kitchen window as Joe and August stacked logs in our woodshed, I thought I was seeing angels. And maybe I was. Sometimes people offer exactly the thing you need and that day it was the offering of logs to warm our house.

the very core

I was lifting logs from the area by the chopping block when a long stick the width of a pencil dropped to the ground. It was the core of the log John had just bucked into stove lengths and then split. I must have seen the core of a cedar log before but this time I really looked at it. Hard, and smooth as skin, faintly pinkish–you can see it in the photo at the top of this post, though the pink is lost in that image. It is its own thing, its own strength. I put it aside and will keep it on my desk with all the other objects–the paperweight John brought me from Toronto years ago and which led me into an essay about my mother (“Paperweight”, in Phantom Limb); a large smooth rock from the Skeena River; a chunk of fossil-filled rock from a beach west of Sooke; two ikons, one from Greece, courtesy of Angelica, and one from Skagway; the pelvis of my beloved dog Lily; a tiny ceramic tree frog; a glass heart (a gift from John); and a bowl of shells and stones collected over the years.

We were in the old orchard, the one I wrote about in Euclid’s Orchard, and sunlight was bright on the house above us, the bigleaf maples on the edge of the orchard, and we were doing work we’ve done for decades, willingly, grateful to still have the strength to bring in the wood. There are things I’m having a hard time with these days and I’m trying to write my way through, hoping for clarity and peace. The core of the cedar reminds me of days past, days of kindness, which of course is the title of one of my favourite poems of Leonard Cohen. Reading it just now, I find lines to carry with me, to hold as strength and courage.

There was good light then
oil lamps and candles
and those little flames
that floated on a cork in olive oil
What I loved in my old life
I haven’t forgotten
it lives in my spine

It lives in my spine, what I haven’t forgotten. The fires we lit in the orchard to burn old brush, the ones when our children were still here, the ones when they returned with their own children. The days of apple blossom and pear blossom, rich as sandalwood. The good light of a few candles on the deck at the end of a dinner. The bees. The friends who have passed into memory, the ones who turned away, the dark nights driving home when elk crossed the highway in a long stream, the single snowy owl on the tree by our driveway. In my spine, what I loved in my old life, holding me true in the days since, the ones to come.

summer postcards, near Ruby Lake

morning swim

Our summer is still deciding. May was hot, June was unsettled, and today we are promised sun, warmth, and we’re still waiting. But it was lovely to begin the day with a swim and for a brief few minutes, the sun came out. Because the last few weeks were so cool and grey, we swam in the local pool. (Three weeks ago, we were swimming most mornings in the lake and thought that was how we’d continue.) I thought to myself this morning that my lake swims are a very qualitative experience. The light coming through the big trees, the swallows darting to the water’s surface for insects, the sound of ravens, the cold rush as I swim what must be an underground spring, the dense feel of the sand as I come out to find my towel.

In the pool, it’s about time and distance. I swim 50 lengths of the 20 meter pool. That’s a kilometer. It usually takes about 35 minutes (I’m no athlete) but sometimes a little less time and some mornings, maybe 38 minutes. The lifeguards play music and sometimes I like it. Sometimes I don’t get it. I know kids pee in the pool (and worse) so I try not to open my mouth. If I do, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

This morning I could smell newly-cut cedar. Last year’s extended drought meant that many young cedars died over the winter. We saw them lose fronds in late summer but didn’t realize how many had died until late spring. The Hydro guys came to our door a few weeks ago to say that they’d be coming in a month to cut down the ones that are close to the power lines. They identified 7. I know we have more that aren’t in the way of the lines and we’ll either figure out a safe way to cut them down or else leave them as wildlife trees. But at the lake, I guess the Parks crew have been cutting the dead trees. I could see one in sections by the shore. That’s what I was smelling. Another way in which the morning swim is qualitative. You stretch out your arms and move through the green water and you smell the incense of fresh cedar.

The other day John picked about half our gooseberries (we have the green ones) and because it’s still not sunny enough to be outside, I made a dozen jars of jam with a few blueberries added for colour and a lot of ginger. As I type, I can hear the jar lids snapping, one by one. Opening a jar in winter is like a postcard from summer, near Ruby Lake.



Half a glass

After 32 years, our drain field gave up draining and needed to be repaired. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, I know, but it’s really been the focus of my days lately. And it just so happened that we’d made our vegetable garden over top of the field, lovingly but carelessly, and although I have a small notebook with early notes about what I wanted where, it never really worked out that way. My novels are short on plot and my garden is short on design. It seems I’ve always been drawn to colour, texture, the atmosphere of abundance — this has never been particularly helpful when people ask “What’s your book about?” or when I need to remember where exactly I put tulips last spring and which peony is deep pink, which is red.

In May, this is what the garden looked like:

potato box

plum poppy

last of the pink crabapple

So, lush, green, with a (I like to think) spirited sense of joy.

And here’s what the new area looks like today after many days of fairly brutal work with a pick, shovel, rake, trowel.

new box of perennial greens                                                                                                    looking down

It’s not beautiful — yet. It’s not finished of course and it will be entirely different from its earlier self, mostly because we want to know the exact location of the lines in future, so we’re building the beds inbetween them. But today is the first day that I actually felt that the glass was half-full instead of half-empty. I re-planted many perennial greens — lamb salad, kale, arugula, blood-red sorrel — and watered them in with fish fertilizer. That big mound you can see in the foreground will be framed on Sunday, using lumber milled from the cedar I wrote about in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees: “…some planks which began as one dimension but then tapered as the logs narrowed. I could see them as benches or tables, balanced on stumps.” John has been working out the best way to use the boards we stored under the house and I have to say that for him, this particular glass has always been half-full. He could see that the mud-hole, heavy with rock, would improve day by day while I moped around, wanting everything fixed immediately, wanting the ferns back, the thickets of sage and columbine, the corner bed where the bean tee-pees went. He just kept sawing boards, filling the wheel-barrow with rocks, smoothing out the heaps of soil, plucking out roots that he thought might be day-lilies or tulip bulbs. The other morning we looked out to see the elk just to the right of this photograph, their rumps towards us, and we knew they’d been poking around, hoping for kale and garlic tops (which the deer never bothered but which the elk adore so we extended the black mesh fence to include the garlic box). That very muddy area in front of the fence used to be lawn. Well, to be honest, it was mostly moss with clover and dandelions (a perfect bitter addition to salad). I’ve been squinting, hoping that I can imagine the area in two or three months, cool and green on spring mornings, snakes making their way down to the garden from the rocks above.