“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.

theories of mind

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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”)

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