“…a secret cove with an old house”

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.

 

sunday cabin

Our friend wondered if we’d like to go by boat to Nelson Island on Sunday to visit Harry Roberts’ old cabin at Cape Cockburn. Well, yes! It was clear and blue and on the way we stopped at Quarry Bay where the granite for the Legislative buildings in Victoria was quarried. You could see the old workings hidden now by trees. What you could not imagine was how someone had found that beautiful granite a hundred years ago or more, knew how straight it would split, and then figured out how to get it to Victoria in quantities sufficient to build huge structures. You also thought of nearby Hardy Island where the granite for the Ogden Point breakwater came from and how you’ve looked closely at the workmen’s marks visible on some of the blocks, marks made more than a century ago.

In this tumbledown house,
thought and wind move alike.

The cabin sits on its south-facing rise above a small pebbled cove. Our friend, an ideal guide because he spent part of his childhood on Nelson Island and a good portion of the rest of his life thus far researching, publishing, and commemorating the history of B.C. in general and our coast in particular, told us Harry’s colourful story and showed us the cabin’s interior, the summer kitchen, the sturdy steps leading to a bedroom I found myself dreaming a whole life within, and then we walked among the old fruit trees, eating Transparents and talking. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were not alone, that if I just listened carefully enough, I would hear someone cooking, a hoe in the stone-rimmed garden, the clatter of shells as someone opened oysters for dinner.

cabin interior

So now it’s a Tuesday morning and I’m sitting at my desk, remembering how it felt to walk into what the cabin still held of the past, its open spaces lonely for children, for the scent of woodsmoke, for someone reading poetry aloud by the fire. I could live here, I said, and in a way it’s true. Picking apples for a pie, making sure the lamps were trimmed, the water pump primed. When we sat on the beach and when we swam in the cold clean water, a seal kept watch, its head glossy in sunlight. What did it know of who left and who returned?

House: blue mountains, rain, surf stumbling on the reef.
House of live, house of childhood,
a shake and log shamble, windworn and storm white;
its desires and regrets a matter of moments
half-seen through another life. Even so
love was enormous in this secrecy.
The stars sang in the twilit garden;
morning was moonlight,
raspberries, wine clear as the wind and cold.

chimney

Note: the passages of poetry are taken from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek” by the late Charles Lillard (another dear friend), published in Shadow Weather (Sono Nis Press, 1996)

Radiance, all these years later

We went to Vancouver (3rd time in a week…) to see a concert, one of two for which the tickets were given us a gift by one child at Christmas. It was the VSO’s A Spanish Rhapsody, conducted by Jun Märkl, featuring the wonderful Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.

But first we went to dinner at Lupo, a restaurant we’d never been to before, though we’d heard good things about it. And yes, the meal was fabulous—I had duck confit with sausage and a delicious assortment of vegetables and John had braised rabbit with pappardelle. Before our mains, we shared a salad of beets, as sweet and succulent as any I’ve ever had, with two kinds of goat cheese—a fresh pool of creamy cheese under the beets and a roasted round of a more mature chevre beside them; and we also had a plate of vitello tonnato. Desserts were (for me) a roasted white chocolate cheesecake with a cherry compote and (for John) wild blueberry and coconut tart. We drank crisp white wine from Sardinia. The service was note-perfect.

It was the moment we were shown to our table that was most remarkable though. On the wall, right by our table, was a huge painting I recognized immediately as a Margaret Peterson. It was so beautiful, glowing against the putty-grey wall.

at Lupo

I asked our waiter where on earth they got a Margaret Peterson painting. He was gracious and said he thought it was from a gallery in Gastown that lends art to businesses like restaurants. The reason I was surprised was that I had forgotten about this extraordinary artist and I suspect many others have forgotten about her too. And that’s sad.

She came to attention in the 1950s and 1960s. You can tell, I think. Her work is abstract, highly influenced by her travels in Mexico, Central American, by Picasso and Braque, and by her own interest in Indigenous art. Her paintings are rhythmical and richly coloured.

I met her in 1975 or 1976 when I was a student at the University of Victoria. One of my instructors, the poet Rona Murray, took a few of us to have tea with Margaret and her husband, the novelist Howard O’Hagan. (I was so excited about seeing her painting at Lupo that I told the waiter all about her and O’Hagan and how important the latter’s novel Tay John is to an understanding of our province and its literary history that he came to tell me, between courses, that he’d ordered Tay John online and it would arrive by Amazon Prime today! I know my daughter will be rolling her eyes if she’s reading this and will ask me, Why do you do that, Mum? But I can’t stop myself.) Anyway, yes, a few of us were taken to meet them, Rona presenting a bottle of Scotch to Howard, and we spent a couple of hours in their company. They lived in a small shabby apartment on Dallas Road near Ogden Point and I remember wondering how such amazing people were reduced to such poverty. For it was clear they were poor. Howard wasn’t well. But Margaret’s work was on the walls and the apartment glowed. I remember thinking I’d like to know them better but I never met them again.

A few years later, Robin Skelton and Charles Lillard edited a special issue of the Malahat Review, gathering together the work of poets∗ and visual artists of British Columbia. The cover image is one of Margaret’s totemic figures. I was lucky enough to have 5 poems included in the issue (published in January, 1978) and I went just now to our library area to find my copy.

Number 45

I didn’t expect to be taken back all those years when we walked into Lupo last evening, I didn’t expect to call the small apartment to mind, to recall those two people whom I never hear mentioned these days, apart from a conversation with Kevin Paul a few years ago when he said Tay John was one of his favourite books. It was one of mine too. I’m going to read it again for its resonant retelling of an important story of B.C., and I’m going to try to look for more of Margaret’s paintings. I remember a mosaic at UVic and I believe the Maltwood Museum had some of her work so I’m thinking it will now be held at the Legacy Art Galleries of the University of Victoria; the next time I’m in Victoria, I’ll see what I can find.

If you’ve never read Tay John, here’s a passage to encourage you to seek it out:

It was early autumn, then, before the snow began to fly. –(There’s an expression for you, born in the country, born from the imaginations of men and their feeling for the right word, the only word, to mirror clearly what they see! Those with few words must know how to use them.) Men who have seen it, who have watched it day by day outside their cabin window coming down from the sky, like the visible remorse of an ageing year; who have watched it bead upon the ears of the horses they rode, muffle the sound of hoofs on the trail, lie upon spruce boughs and over grass – cover, as if forever, the landscape in which they moved, round off the mountains, blanket the ice in the rivers – for them the snow flies. The snow doesn’t fall. It may ride the wind. It may descend slowly, in utter quiet, from the grey and laden clouds, so that you can hear the flakes touching lightly on the wide white waste, as they come to rest at the end of their flight. Flight – that’s the word. They beat in the air like wings, as if reluctant ever to touch the ground. I have observed them coming down, on a very cold day, near its end when the sky above me was still blue, in flakes great and wide as the palm of my hand. They were like immense moths winging down in the twilight, making the silence about me visible.

*A second issue devoted to B.C. writing and art focused on fiction. including a story by Howard O’Hagan, illustrated by Margaret Peterson. And I’d forgotten that I have a story in that issue too.

“What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat…”

first day of spring

First day of spring, and it’s grey. But last night we went to have dinner with our friends on Oyster Bay and it was like so many dinners we’ve had over the 32 years of our friendship. Arriving before the sun went down to a bay filled with goldeneyes, buffleheads. The whoosh of the tide. The smell of woodsmoke as we gathered by the fire to drink a glass of champagne (because they invited us, 4 of us, to celebrate my recent nomination for a B.C. Book Prize!). Looking out the window at the crazy roof of the old part of the house—we were in the newer part—anyway, the old part of the house that was originally a floating camp kitchen where high tides wash under the floor, pulled up onto land in the 1930s or 40s and shored up with logs, I said to one friend, “This is the world we hoped to find when we moved here in 1982.” A place my old friend Charles Lillard described so beautifully in “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.

We ate oysters collected earlier in the day from the beach (and there was a bucket full of them waiting for us to take home at the end of the evening), prawns, a delicious side of perfect salmon, and finished with lemon meringue pie. Champagne, and French chardonnay tasting of wet stones. A vase of snowdrops on the table set with my friend’s family Meissen, brought home from her mother’s house after her mother’s long life ended. Everything so beautiful and cherished.

I want to record these times because when we’re gone, will anyone remember that a house sat at the edge of a bay and 6 friends ate a feast pulled from its waters? That we talked of poetry and art (two of my friends are painters), of our children who are all making their way in the larger world but who all knew this house in their childhoods, swam off its generous rocks?

I wrote a novel about this bay after a series of dreams about a man in a small boat. A Man In A Distant Field is set in the salt meadows at the end of the bay where creeks find their way down to it from Mount Hallowell.

Past the watery thickets of eel-grass streaming over the surface of the bay, past the reeds where nests were concealed, past the tiny cove where Declan had stumbled upon Rose digging for clams with a stick shaped like a bird’s claw. There were sandy areas punctuated with oysters, the small Olympics that tasted sweet when you pried their shells open and drank them back like nectar, and there were rocks encrusted with the bigger Pacifics brought from Japan. The man who’d given Declan passage up the coast had told him that he was growing the big oysters on the beach in front of his homestead, hoping to market them to the steamships; he brought boxes of seed by boat from Vancouver, his young son responsible for keeping the boxes damp. “If it’s a high sea,” the man had said, “I tie a rope around his middle so he doesn’t wash overboard.” Declan imagined them coming up from the strait in wild seas on their boat with the boxes of oyster seed, the child tethered to the wheelhouse while the father steered a straight course for home. He heard the echoes of Odysseus resisting the song of the Sirens, lashed to the mast, while his men rowed past the pretty music. What song might lure a child from the deck of a small boat heading north to Pender Harbour into the dark waters of Georgia Strait?

I think it might be the song we hear that draws us back to dinners on Oyster Bay, talking of poetry and children, and all around us, the scent of woodsmoke, of salt.

In the hubbub of a weekend…

…crowd in Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, we took refuge in Mouat’s Store. Located in the heart of the village, Mouat’s has been serving customers since 1907. When I was a child, camping at St. Mary’s Lake with my family, I used to love going to the store with my father. He’d been looking for a lure, a hook, a new reel of fishing line. Or a part for a pot — he was nothing if not resourceful. He’d spend hours in hardware stores, looking (it seemed) at each nut and bolt, each small hook, determined to find its weak point or flaw. If he found none, he’d buy it, taking money out of a worn brown wallet. If we were lucky, we got a quarter. There was always something in Mouat’s to spend money on. Or dream of buying.

I never would have had enough money to buy a music box. But yesterday I did and so when I spotted this beautiful tin box with a little handle and painted with Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Rabbit, and that rogue Pigling Bland, I knew I had to have it. When you turn the handle, it plays Für Elise in a hesitating way. I love it. At first I thought I was buying for a grandchild but no. It’s for that little girl who wanted to play piano, who wanted something to transport her occasionally far from the world she knew.

music box

We were on Salt Spring for an event at the library. I was to read with Sarah De Leeuw and we were going to talk a bit about the essay—I’ve just published Euclid’s Orchard and Sarah’s Where it Hurts came out in spring from NeWest Press. But then Sarah wasn’t able to come and so Mona Fertig and my husband John read a little from Sarah’s work. Then I read passages and answered a few questions and we drove back to Peter and Mona’s in a drizzle of rain. We had drinks with an old friend Diana Hayes and her Pete and slept in a room overlooking the ocean, window open to the rain. Driving down to Fulford Harbour to take the ferry back to Vancouver Island, I felt (rather than thought) the beginning of a, well, a long essay, maybe even a book about the old coast. The coast I knew as a girl and still find traces of, on Salt Spring, on Vancouver Island, on the shore of Okeover Inlet or at Earls Cove, at Egmont, in places where the wood is weathered, the boats are useful, and people still know where they are. They’re not busy plotting for bridges from one island to another, for fancy forms of governance, for a billion dollar highway to blast its way from Squamish to Gibsons. They aren’t interested in sidewalks in rural fishing villages or buried power lines (because that’s how it’s done in Montreal). A bucket of clams is a dinner, a sockeye salmon a feast.

This morning we ate slivers of the most beautiful smoked salmon as we talked and then Mona poured tiny glasses of crabapple liqueur she’d made last year. I thought of Crete when I lived there and how sometimes the father of the man I was in love with poured Metaxa from a bottle he kept on his boat and we toasted the morning and our collective health. His son, who owned a taverna, took home a string of fish to gut and fillet for the evening crowd. I thought of my old friend Charles Lillard and his lines from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”:

This is the old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology…

Where a music box playing Für Elise summons it all back. For now. Until I can write it all down.

theories of mind

P1100216

I think I’ve admired ravens my entire life. I remember family camping trips when I was a child and being enthralled by the sound of ravens in the deep coastal forests where we’d set up our tent. Bigger than crows, intelligent, with an extensive vocabulary, they inhabit our geographical places as well as our imaginations. They are pretty much monogamous. They have elaborate social structures. (Read Bernd Heinrich’s books to learn more about this.) We’re lucky enough to have many of them around us most of the time. One of our regular walks takes us up past a winter roost. We watch them and listen to them gossip and argue. There’s always something interesting happening up in the roost and listening to them discuss stuff is fascinating. And we talk to them, though our command of their language is limited. Still, you can stop them in mid-flight by doing the sound that is sort of like knocking on a hollow drum — click your tongue against your palate with your mouth open. If there are ravens around, they’ll almost certainly check you out. They’ve learned to use highways as food paths, flying quite low to the road to take advantage of road kill.  And if you see one huddled over a dead squirrel or robin, it will quickly turn and walk away, looking very casually in the opposite direction, as though to direct your attention away from its food source. They’re opportunists. They’re clever. They work out how to feed themselves and their network. Some calls — I have to say I don’t know which ones — are directed at letting others in the roost know about potential food sources.

It was interesting to read this piece this morning on recent research into their “abstract thinking”.  An experiment indicates that ravens know when they’re being spied on and protect their food caches accordingly. There’s a section at the end of the paper in which the authors wonder if their experiment proves that ravens have a Theory of Mind. It’s always kind of funny when science uses human proposistions to talk about animals, as though, with a bit of work, ravens or wolves or chimpanzees can somehow aspire to be more like us. I think ravens are astonishing birds. They’ve fascinated us and beguiled us and instructed us for as long as we’ve shared the same territory.

A few summers ago, we were driving through Manning Park with a friend and we stopped for a picnic. This raven spent time with us, close enough that we could see it had a deformed beak. (I believe this is an example of “avian keratin disorder”, caused in many cases by environmental contaminants. This bird was quite far from potential sources of such contaminants, though.) You can see that it’s pretty close to where we were sitting and managed to beg food from us quite successfully. It’s messy — this beak condition sometimes means that the birds can’t preen efficiently.

P1100213Long before Europeans were contaminating the air and water of the coast, there were crooked-beaked ravens around. In the winter ceremonials  of the Kwakwaka’wakw, in the Hamatsa secret society dances, Galuxwadzuwus, or Crooked-Beak-of-Heaven, cracked open men’s skulls and ate their brains. A Theory of Mind in the making? Or pragmatism? Does it matter?

My old friend, the late Charles Lillard, spoke fluent raven and wrote of them so memorably that I only got his last book out to check the punctuation. The poem was as vivid to me as it was when I heard him read it twenty years ago.

Out westward the surf washes across the Lord Luckies.

At Sitka the cathedral bells call out their prophecies.

Above these flames, above this crimson beach,

a shadow rises with the updraft: croanq, croanq, croanq

the black sanctus rising into the morning sky.

(from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek”)

P1040638

 

“Sometimes the noise we don’t hear/is Simon Fraser on his river.”

The title of this post is a line from “Fraser’s River”, a poem by the late Charles Lillard. Sometimes we forget that a river runs through, and by, Vancouver, a river as mighty as any in the world.  It rises near Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountains and winds through mountains, some of the most beautiful grasslands on earth, forests, for 1,375 kilometres until it empties into Georgia Strait. It’s a river of salmon and the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus, the largest fresh-water fish in North America).  Eulachons (or oolichans, oolachons, even hooligans!) run in the river — Thaleichthys pacificus, a fish so important to coastal cultures as a trade item, a fuel source (one common name is the candlefish, for the habit of burning them as candles during the fall spawn when their body weight is 15% fat), and as a valued food item. Howard White asks in “Oolachon Grease”, “…are empires/sustained by condiments?” and in the case of eulachons, I think they were. The grease trails connected coastal British Columbia with the Interior and the small fish, caught in spawning rivers and creeks and dried, were traded for copper, furs, and other materials. More than fish travelled the trails. Cultures exchanged ideas, stories, languages met and influenced one another; in fact Chinook or the wawa, a jargon developed for the purposes of trade and communication, and served as a kind of connective tissue for the Pacific Northwest. We still hear its echoes in our place-names and the words we use every day unknowingly. Skookum, chuck, cultus, muckamuck, illahie, potlatch, tyee, the language of this place with its fish and salt water, its high talk and big stories.

Yesterday we walked along the Fraser River in New Westminster with my brother and sister-in-law after a night at their home. It was a true coastal morning, mist over the river and everything else, several tugs wrangling a long log boom upstream,

P1110141and it wasn’t really surprising to encounter Simon Fraser himself with his back to the river:

P1110133In “Fraser’s River”, there are a couple of lines I thought of as we walked:

Back at the headwaters

the door was still there

to open, to close…

Some mornings history is so close we can feel it in the mist, can hear it in the creak of cedar logs agitating in their boom, wanting escape, the head of a sea-lion poking up out of the water and gazing around as though in wonder at where he’d found himself on a Sunday morning. As I did, watching this little downy woodpecker on an bare tree, hard at work while all around people walked their dogs, a child raced by on a skooter, and trains made their slow way along the tracks:

P1110149Several years ago, I read Stephen Hume’s wonderful book, Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia. It’s both a record of a journey taken by Hume over four years, tracing Fraser’s route in 1808 in search of a navigable route to the Pacific in the service of the North West Company, and a meditation of the processes of history. I loved Hume’s passion for his subject and his alert mind. It’s the kind of the book that sets the soul on fire and you find yourself wondering if you should also set out in a canoe in search of the landscape and human encounters and exchanges that shaped the place you call your home — not just your own small piece of the coast but all the grand waters and high grasslands, the austere mountains, the remnants of old communities and the sound of train whistles in the night. Short answer: no, you won’t. But how wonderful that someone did, and wrote about it. And that you had the chance to walk the river in good company on Sunday morning, the door still there, to open, to close.

feasts

Last night we had a great party to celebrate John’s birthday. There were 18 of us gathered to eat sockeye salmon (barbecued with preserved lemons), boeuf bourguignon, and hazelnut chocolate torte; after dinner we were treated to another kind of feast: a performance of our friend Jeffrey Renn’s Poetry Night in Canada. When I finally fell into my bed around 1 a.m., I was completely sated — poetry, fine wine, good food, and the warmth of friendship.

Earlier in the day, John, our lovely daughter Angelica, and I walked over to see the spawning coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Readers of this blog might think, “O no, here she goes again. The salmon…” But honestly it’s something I look forward to every year: the cycles of birth and death, darkness and light, the beautiful bodies of the fish in cold water and then dragged to the shore to feed the hungry appetites. The music is ravens klooking in the big trees and mergansers muttering in the quiet lake.

When I put the salmon on the white platter, I remembered the carcass on the banks of Haskins Creek, partially eaten.

salmonYesterday I watched a coyote trot past my study window and wondered if he’d come from the creek. We all long for the sweet flesh in winter — whether it’s eagles or ravens, coyotes or dinner guests hovering by the pine table. Jeffrey recited “St. Anne’s Crossing”, one of my favourite poems by the late Charles Lillard:

       …these beautiful fish

three lengths of silver on a flat boulder

bearing all the wilderness of cold fast

water my body can endure.

There was a collective sigh when Jeffrey finished reading and I said quietly, “He slept in this room.” And he did, years ago, the last time a few months before he died. Others were in the guest room and he bunked down on the long cedar couch, a quilt over him, the windows uncovered so he could see stars if he woke before morning. I remember his chuckle, his intense interest in the world, and poems like “St. Anne’s Crossing” summon him back, as the salmon are summoned back by the season, the urgency of life and death, and what Charles called the coastal sanctus: “…above this blue-edged water, a raven does a double wingover, calling, calling…”