small music

The season has definitely shifted. Last week the first frost and this week, well, rain. On my way out to the car the other day, I was looking down and nearly stepped on this northwestern salamander in the grass by our little pool.

morning salamander

I picked it up and moved it to a mossy area at the bottom of a stump. Its front feet on my wrist reminded me of how, in summer, I thought I was feeling my grandson Eddy’s soft palm against my calf under the outside table—he was crawling on the deck while the rest of us finished dinner—and looked down to see a tree frog clinging there instead. We do see salamanders and rough-skinned newts in the summer too but somehow this is their season. Bringing logs inside, we often uncover one sheltering in the woodshed. They hold their postures in the cool air, unable to move, and so we’re careful to place them back within the logs. Once, after a deep snowfall, we were walking along the lower part of our driveway, used by neighbours to access their properties on Sakinaw Lake. Someone had driven in earlier and so there were tire tracks in the snow. And there, in the packed snow of a track, was a tree frog, completely still.  How did it get there? Had it fallen from one of the big firs overhead? I picked it up and took it back with us, tucked into my mitten, and put it in a big pot of moss and ferns by our front door. Is it the one of the frogs I hear chirping in the bare rose canes at night, is it the one who paused on my leg and who gave such delight to my grandchildren, is the one who clings to the cool tap on the deck beside the bench where the pot of moss and ferns provided shelter for it that cold winter day?

snow frog

Yesterday, after our swim, we drove over to Anderson Creek to see if the chum salmon have begun to spawn. We parked and walked to the creek. No eagles in the tall trees and no smell of carcasses dragged to the woods by bears. Not yet. The creek was lovely, its tea-coloured water pushing towards Oyster Bay. The riffles made their small music in the rain.

anderson creek

We watched for a bit and didn’t see fish. But then as we turned to leave, I heard a splash and looked again. A single pair of chum hovering against the far bank, under a hollowed out portion of cedar root, their bodies undulating. So it’s beginning and we’ll go back in a few days and watch what we’ve watched for our 38 autumns on this coast. When I see the run at its peak, hundreds of fish swimming and darting and choosing mates, I feel that I’m in the right place in creation’s wheel.

So yesterday I was at Anderson Creek and this morning I’m remembering the Cheremosh River and the Rybnytsya River as I work on yet another draft of an essay about Ukraine. I’m listening to the Rybnytsya tumble through the valylo at the blanket weaver’s studio, feeling its chill from where I stand, watching her pull blankets from the water with a forked stick, telling me that the water is life. How different our lives and yet water is our source, our solace.



finding my way into winter

November 1st. After morning chores, we’ll go over to Anderson Creek today to see if the chum salmon are running. These are good days to be outside. Leaves are falling, the last of the geese are heading south, and our woodshed is slowly filling. Slowly, because our division of labour has shifted slightly due to a rogue medical adventure of John’s last week so I’m the one stacking the fir chunks into rows in the woodshed, trying to keep my stacks as tidy as those behind them—the alder already cut and stacked earlier by John. It’s a kind of learned skill, how to choose pieces that will fit snugly against their neighbour, how to wedge and balance. Not unlike other things I do, not unlike the patterns I look for when I’m eyeing a stack of fabric and thinking about quilts, though I have to say that stacking firewood is a bit more physical.

I took the wax out of the final length of indigo-dyed fabric the other day. I confessed in an earlier post that I realized before even unwrapping the length after its immersion in dye baths and long period of overnight oxidization that it wouldn’t look the way I’d hoped it would. And it doesn’t. But it has moments. This one, for example:


And the eel-grass areas at the four corners of the fabric, because of the way I’d folded and wrapped and bound the sheet around a length of pvc pipe:

eel grass

I’m glad to have done it, to have learned things, and to have something now to work with. And there are pieces from this last dye lot that have surprised me with their beauty. This one will be a single-cloth quilt on its own, maybe backed with deep red cotton, and quilted with red sashiko stitching:


Once the woodshed is filled and I know I can count on a winter of warm fires to work by, I’ll begin the process of turning this into a quilt. And all the other fabric I dyed? Well, it’s waiting too. Everything is gathering—the imagery, the ideas, the hours themselves, and my own need to spend time stitching and thinking, finding my way into winter.

postcard from the Surf Motel

Down Vancouver Island this morning after a terrific reading event last evening in Nanaimo, Wordstorm, with a generous audience (and a delicious Goan prawn dish first at the host restaurant, the Tandoori Junction). I said, as we drove, that I always know when I’m on the Island (where I spent most of the first twenty five years of my life, apart from some years in Halifax, Matsqui, Greece, and Ireland) because my skin feels as though it’s come home. I know where I am by scent. By the air. And approaching Goldstream River, I knew the salmon were there. We stopped and in pouring rain I walked out to see them, the chum (or dog) salmon my father used to take us to see each autumn. The salmon I’m used to watching now are sockeye and coho, both more colourful when they spawn, so it took my eyes a few minutes to see the silver bodies in the grey water. But I could smell them, a fresh smell, water and fish and rain. There were a few dead ones


and gulls whirling above, a kingfisher rattling in a cedar, and walking back, I was surprised to see blossom:


I thought of Michelle Shocked’s song “Blackberry Blossom” and it seemed so right to be humming it as I returned to the car where John was listening to jazz:

Can you tell me what happened to the blossom
Blackberry blossom when the summertime came?
The blackberry blossom, oh the last time I saw one
Was down in the bramble where I rambled in the spring.

Everything a piece, a part of my history, my memory, even stopping in to see the Mammoth exhibit at the Museum with Angelica and being reminded, among the mastadon jaws and the mammoth tusks and even Lyuba herself, 42,000 years old,


that one of my sons, aged about 4, used to say that he wanted to be Early Man when he grew up, having been entranced by drawings of hominini in my old anthropology textbooks, hairy people around campfires with mammoths lurking in the background. So time passes, rivers run, salmon spawn, boys grow up to be mathematicians rather than Australopithicus, and the breakwater at Ogden Point is now fenced for our safety. Still, the sealions pass in joy, a heron fishes from a clump of bull kelp, and the sea, oh the sea, is the same sea I loved as a child, the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula barely visible through cloud.

And now back at the Surf Motel where we stayed when one son (that son) was married to his sweetheart on Beacon Hill and where I walked on the breakwater very early on the morning of his wedding, remembering everything.

Early man, wish you were here.

Where we are in the year

The other day we stopped at Anderson Creek to see the chum salmon run in progress. These are Oncorhynchus keta, also called dog salmon for the hooked snout and canine-like teeth the males form during spawning. (The females develop a less pronounced version of this kype as well.) They are lovely fish, about 10-20 pounds, with green and dark purple vertical bars on their bodies.  I think their migration is the longest of any of the genus. When we stopped the other day, the water level was quite low — we’ve had a very long mild fall thus far, with only a little rain.

Today I went back, hoping to take a few photographs. All last night it rained hard and the creek was quite full. I thought how often I’d come to Anderson Creek on school field trips, all the children watching the drama of the living fish and the dead. Just beyond, Oyster Bay with its remnants of ancient fish weirs, and everywhere the scent of the season — leaves, rotting fish, damp ground.  I wish I could share the sound of the salmon pushing their way through cold water to find the right place to dig their redds and lay their eggs. It’s one of the best ways to know where we are in the year — bears fattening on the carcasses, ravens klooking in the cedars, eagles making their thin vocalizations that sound so eerie filtered down through rain and trees.

The light wasn’t good for pictures but I took some anyway and hope you can see the shapes of the fish in the water, under ferns, hovering with a chosen mate.