in those dark quiet hours

I was awake in the night for several hours and came down to my desk to sit in the quiet and think. I heard an owl in the woods and the swift movement of something running along the deck above the covered porch out my study window. A weasel? Every time I hear animal feet, I think weasel now. But we also have flying squirrels who come out at night to glide and forage. I was relieved this morning to open the hot-tub (it’s such a nice way to wake up — a soak with a cup of strong coffee and old New Yorkers or Harpers) and see this tree frog under the edge of the cover. (The reason it’s in a jar is that I have to remove it when I replace the lid. And for some reason, the frog liked the jar and spent about half an hour meditating inside.)

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Anyway, I was awake in the night and because you don’t always get to choose what you think about in those dark quiet hours, I found myself reading parts of Douglas Cole’s Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, a book I read quite carefully when I was writing the “Quercus virginiana: Degrees of Separation” chapter of my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. I was trying then to figure out some things about the ethics of salvage archaeology, which is one way to look at the 19th century practice of artifact collection. I was remembering an encounter I had as a child with the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin as he worked on the Welcome posts at Thunderbird Park in Victoria. (I was a free-range child, sent out on summer mornings to ride my bike as far as the edges of the known world, which for me, in 1961-2, was Beacon Hill Park.) I spent a lot of time during the writing of that chapter looking at Charles Newcombe’s archival photographs of villages — Gwa’yasdams on Gilford Island, ‘Mi’mkwamlis with its feast dishes and poles…And those photographs took me to the places where terrible acts of theft and deception were common, as were more businesslike and fair transactions. (I’m remembering information at the Edenshaw retrospective at the VAG a few years ago where a daughter remembered the family’s relative affluence when museums commissioned pieces from both Charles and his wife Isabella, an extraordinary basketmaker; the work was commercially viable without sacrificing traditional formlines and artistic values.)  The Newcombe photographs also documented the villages with such care and attention.

One can look at them, a single degree of separation, and approach something of the experience of gliding onto the beach at Kalokwis on Turnour Island among the canoes where the houseposts stare out to sea, their imagery and context intact. Or walk up to the group of people standing in front of Kwaksistala, a house on Harbledown Island, in 1900, children and adults wrapped in blankets, a few of them in headdresses. That house’s sculpin front informed, in memory, some of the Mungo Martin’s work in Thunderbird Park, as of course did Gwa’yasdams. We can almost remember, looking at these photographs, almost trace the trajectory of the artist’s work back to his original home at Fort Rupert on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, where clams were dried by the fire and elegant hooks of western yew might bring up a halibut. We can almost stand there in our otherness, our clothing slowly absorbing the smell of cedar smoke and salt.

— from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, page 56-7

And then, because I couldn’t find a way to resolve how I felt about the whole thing — the ethics, the dueling notions of preservation and theft, of who owns what, and what belonging means anyway — I spent another half an hour just looking at the photographs in Dan Savard’s wonderful Images From the Likeness House: potlatches, men dipnetting salmon off rocks on the edge of the Fraser River, vats of eulachons being rendered to oil — while the small sounds of the night pressed against my window screen until finally I was tired enough to sleep.

“All these years later, Winter Wren is what happened.”

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She listened to the creek falling to the beach. She pulled off her sweater, threw it to the rocks. Her corduroy trousers. She left on her canvas sneakers. And darted under the shelf where the fossils slept in the wall of stone. With a little shriek, she stepped forward into the shower of cold water.

She turned so every part of her body met the water, thrusting her chest forward, her breasts stinging at the contact, her legs shuddering. The pool the water tumbled into came half-way up her calves, icy as glaciers. Freshets ran down her back and she could not feel her knees, her elbows.

And now it was dark, moonlight just beginning to glitter on the ocean. Gasping and coughing, she groped with icy hands for her clothing, wrapping her sweater around her shoulders and not bothering to put on her pants. Sneakers squelching, she climbed the bank and found her way back up to the cabin where her candle guttered in the night air. She could not stop shaking. Rubbing her body briskly with a towel and wrapping another around her dripping hair, she realized she had not felt so alive in months.

Any moment now, Winter Wren will be arriving from the printer. It’s the first offering from Fish Gotta Swim Editions and to say I’m excited and nervous about the whole enterprise is an understatement of enormous proportions. It’s a novella about a place — the cabin and the beach in the photograph above the extract from the book. And it’s about a character, Grace Oakden, who appears in an earlier book, The Age of Water Lilies. I visited a book club to talk about that novel and someone asked, What happened to Grace? I had no answer but it got me thinking. And wondering. Winter Wren is the result. In it is buried a meditation on the 19th c. photographers and artifact collectors (Charles Newcombe, et. al.) who plundered and celebrated and recorded the west coast. The issue is complicated and this novella understands that.

On my study wall is a framed series of nine photographs, illustrating the book’s mantra: Bring me the view at dusk. Nine panels for nine window frames. It was given me by my daughter for my 60th birthday.Every morning I study it while I’m waiting for my computer to boot up and every morning I hear the surf, the noisy creek falling over its shelf of sandstone, smell the kelp. When I wrote the book, I had a hard time leaving its world each day to return to the dailiness of my present life, a dailiness I love and that anchors me in a sturdy durable way. But some days I wonder what would have happened if I’d actually left a note on the door of the cabin you can see above the creek, asking if I could rent the place. That was 1974. All these years later, Winter Wren is what happened.

“one who creeps into holes”

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This little bird house swings from an eave out my study window. A winter wren (I know they’ve been reclassified as Pacific wrens but old habits die hard) visits most mornings. After Brendan gave me this house for Christmas five years ago, I hoped a wren might nest in it but I suspect the opening is too wide and the house is too obvious.  The genus name Troglodytes is from the Greek (and I can’t do the orthographic decorations here) and means “one who creeps into holes”, a perfect designation for these tiny birds that dart about in the underbrush, in and out of roots. They are territorial and quite fierce about protecting their (small) ground but they will gather communally in cold weather to keep each warm during the long winter nights. I was sitting at my desk in late afternoon in December and saw 6 wrens arrive at this house, one after another, and each one paused at the opening, looking around to make sure of, well, I’m not sure what (they didn’t know I was watching and probably thought no one could see them), before entering. Was it memory of that safety that brought a wren just now to enter the house and peer out? Or, more likely, the prospect of little spiders and pupae to make a breakfast.

In my forthcoming novella, Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions), there’s an elderly reclusive man, the son of a famous artefact collector (based loosely on Charles Newcombe), who earned a living by preparing bird skins for museums. I tried to imagine preparing a study skin of these tiny birds and realized the skill it takes to do such work. Skill and love. The man, whose name is Tom Winston, also learns something about the music of wrens. I’ll leave that to prospective readers to discover for themselves. But here’s a passage in which wrens occur — and if you read this novella, you’ll learn that they’ve been there all along and that they don’t forget.

Dreaming of water, further north, near Tanu, the darkness that surrounded them as they edged towards an island where burials had taken place. I only want to look at the mortuary poles, Tom, his father told him as the boat bumped against rock, pipe-smoke damp and sweet in the rain. Only want to look. But then his father was winching a pole to the shore with someone else and Tom was helping them tip it into the boat which swayed and lurched on its tether. The smell of rotting cedar and moss. He was dreaming of what was concealed in the niche in the back of the pole, the bones huddled in scraps of clothing. The remnants of a woven cape, skins around the torso, winter wren song trilling out of the underbrush, witnessing their theft.

the view

We spent the weekend in Victoria so I could participate in the Victoria Writers Festival. What a wonderful few days. The organizing committee did a fabulous job of choreographing a seamless and beautiful programme of readings, panel discussions, and workshops. And a wrap-up party at the home of John Gould and Sandy Mayzell. I loved walking across the campus at Camosun College, under the mature Garry oaks, to read from my work and to share stories and laughter with a great group of writers.

John and I went to the Island two days early in order to have time to do our usual rambling around the city. We stayed in the Surf Motel on Dallas Road and this was the view from our room:

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This is the Odgen Point breakwater. I wrote about this breakwater in Mnemonic: “All those huge granite blocks were brought from Hardy Island, near where I live on the Sechelt Peninsula. I want to walk out on it as I did as a young girl with boyfriends on dark Friday nights. We’d pause to kiss as waves crashed against the exposed side. I always felt like I might fall — into the deep cold water of Juan de Fuca Strait of the most mysterious waters of human affection.” It always felt kind of dangerous to me. And now I note that railings have been erected along both sides of the breakwater which is perhaps a metaphor for aging.

I walked by myself down Dallas Road to stand in front of the house Charles Newcombe built in 1907 and part of the layered history that is Victoria to me. I stopped to pick a sprig of Quercus virginiana from the tree I wrote about in Mnemonic. I’ll keep it on my desk to take me back to that street, that house, its complicated legacy.

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We also drove out to Goldstream Park to watch the beginnings of the salmon run there. We saw just a few fish, early swimmers, and some dippers in the shallow riffles. It’s an extraordinary place, that river making its way under huge maples and cedars more than 500 years old.  I was taken to Goldstream Park as a child to see the fish each autumn and I’ve never forgotten the smell, the excitement of glimpsing them sidling under the ferns overhanging the river edges, and their intricate skeletons stripped clean by eagles and ravens. Time stands still, and it doesn’t.