the chilly notes of old carols

christmas cards

Almost every year since 1980, we’ve printed Christmas cards on our 19th c. Chandler&Price platen press. It’s treadle-driven, with an elegant fly-wheel, and when it’s in action, I can hear it from the kitchen, the rumble of its gears, and the steady thump of the treadle. I say “we” but John prints the linocuts that I make at the kitchen table after softening the lino against the window of the woodstove. I’m not an artist but almost every year I come up with something that we match with passages of poetry, old carols, a few sentences from an essay. The blue boat you can see at the back of the photograph is one of the carol ships we used to watch from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. The boats would move in and out of the little bays, their rigging strung with lights, and you could hear people singing carols on their decks. Those of us watching from shore would try to match our voices to the ones that drifted across the dark water. One year the card was our house on its hill. Another showed our cat sitting on a windowsill. Once a quilt block (Variable Star), once a pear, once a grouse in cotoneaster, once a pygmy owl on the bough of fir where we spotted it on a walk. Last year there was supposed to be a Steller’s jay but I wasn’t happy with the inking and said I wouldn’t mail it out. John went quiet. (It’s a lot of work to set the block, to set the type, to print—often in two colours, which means two inkings, two times through the press.) He mailed a few and somewhere there’s a stack of under-inked jays with rather dashing crests.

This year, there won’t be a card. When I said the press is treadle-driven, I mean that there’s an iron treadle that is pedaled with the right foot. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know that John had double hip surgery in October and suffered from a compressed sciatic nerve that affected his peroneal nerve, resulting in a paralyzed right foot. It may or may not recover, though he’s experiencing more feeling in his foot and more movement, and we are hopeful. With some work, he will no doubt be able to figure out a good way to use the treadle again but not yet. He has some plans for press work in the new year and who knows, there might be something to send out then.

I think my favourite of all the cards is the one on the left, in front—two coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Every year we walk over to the creek to witness the return of the fish to the tiny creek running down off Mount Hallowell to where it enters Sakinaw Lake. The fish swim the length of the lake in summer and early fall, waiting until there’s enough water in the creek to allow them to make their way to the gravel beds where they’ll dig redds and spawn. Eagles wait in the huge cedars and coyotes lurk and once I saw a bear dragging a fish away on the opposite bank of the creek as we walked towards the water. Watching the salmon puts life, and death, in perspective.

Mid-winter is the season of miracles—children returning from distant enterprises; the chilly notes of old carols in the air; ancient stories of birth and death; two dark red fish sidling together in a riffle overhung with ferns, fish who have come such a vast distance through rain and under stars to find this unlikely water; a few loose eggs in the gravel glistening like a rare and costly gift.

—from “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek”, published in Phantom Limb, Thistledown Press, 2007.

Later this morning we’ll go over to the creek. I don’t know if the fish are there yet. Some years they arrive in early December. We’ve watched them at New Year. So who knows. But we need this now. We need to remember the ancient stories that sustain us, all of us, as the northern hemisphere tilts its furthest distance from the sun and we prepare for the shortest day of the year. We will be the couple, arm in arm, on the bank of the creek, looking into its fast clean water, as the fish swim past barely noticing us. And if you listen carefully, across the dark water, you might hear one of us singing softly:

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born*

*this is one of my favourite Christmas moments, recited by Burgess Meredith on the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin

postcard from Haskins Creek

Last week, no salmon. And since then, it’s rained almost every day, torrential rain with huge wet winds. This morning the sky cleared and there’s sun, though its passage is very low this time of year, moving towards the longest night.  When we neared the creek, I heard an eagle. But no sign of it in the huge cedars along the creek.

P1120549First we saw a quick little jack, the precocious males who come into the spawning creeks a year earlier than the others of their cohort. They’re darker and they don’t have the kype that mature coho have — the hooked snout and large teeth. They don’t have the beautiful colouring either. In mature spawning coho, the bodies are dark green with burgundy sides and rosy bellies. The way they move through the fast water is lovely; they undulate and find their way against the current.

This pair were hovering under an overhanging log and I think the female was excavating a redd — at one point she was on her side, flexing, and then she slapped her tail.

P1120550I hope there will still be salmon in the creek when some of my family return home just before Christmas. Walking over in sunlight or in rain has been part of our season for as long as we’ve lived here. As the days get shorter, we need the promise of new life, of light, the solace of those cycles which have gone on among the genus Oncorhynchus for at least a million years, moving from its freshwater salmon ancestors (similar to genus Salmo) west, to the Pacific ocean, and north over the Bering landbridge to eastern Asia. Imagine that. And imagine how precarious their status now that we’ve figured out as a species how to dam rivers, damage habitat in every way possible (toxins, effluents, clearcutting the riparian zone which is necessary for water temperature, bank stabilization, moisture absorbtion, high-scale water removal for agriculture and other applications). The cynics among us believe that fish-farming which take care of the human desire for marine protein in our diets. The fatalists think we are probably all doomed anyway.

I’m not a cynic, nor a fatalist. A witness maybe. A praise-singer — one of my earliest published poems,  written when I was 19, was called “River Blessing”; it ends this way:

The silver thread of her is fertile:

I have seen dark otters ride her shape,

seen rain exhaust itself inside her.


I shall sing over her

the chilly vowels of this blessing:


     Blessed be her, she grows Coho

     seeds them, roots them, gathers them back

coho salmon


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…”

waiting in gravel

I’m working on the borders of the salmon quilt now, stitching various sizes of circles in a random pattern around the edges.  I’m thinking of the coho eggs waiting in the gravel of the nearby creeks. They’ll hatch in early spring but the embryos will remain in the loose gravel, consuming their egg sacs, before emerging to live in the shallow areas until they’re big enough to swim into deeper water and defend themselves against any number of predators.

Here is a border in progress:

P1090498I have many akoya buttons in different sizes so I might use them in and around the circles.  And here are the eggs in the gravel:


“Now I shall talk about the spawn of the silver-salmon…”

Waiting for the salmon in the nearby creek has me reading my ancient copy of Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt, by the important (though mercurial) Franz Boas. It’s on my desk and I’ve been looking at the various methods of collecting and preserving fish for later in the year. Cheeks, tails, fins, eggs, backbones — all good sources of nutrition. Reading about the baskets and wooden boxes and woven mats for storing the preserved food has me wanting to make things, and not just food.

In fact there are finally coho salmon in the little creek that runs alongside the boat ramp at the foot of Sakinaw Lake Road. It’s such a narrow creek that I have to wonder how those fish will ever find their own privacy to lay their eggs for the next generation. The situation is not helped by the fact that there’s garbage strewn along the road and a bag of old diapers tossed into the brush at the creek’s edge. There have been guys building a dock down there, preparing to tow it out to one of the summer cabins on the lake, and there’s some oil from their vehicules on the slope of gravel leading down to the lake. What a species we are. I’m going to go over later today and gather up garbage and post a little sign. Those fish deserve more.

There are also salmon gathering in the lake near Haskins Creek but as of yesterday they hadn’t yet entered it. There’s not a lot of water but some quiet pools are waiting. Little freshets to keep the water oxygenated. Deep prints in the mud which means that coyotes are also waiting. The day before yesterday I surprised a red-tailed hawk on the ground and it flew up to an alder with a little cry. And I have to say, it surprised me too.

Friends are coming to lunch today and I’m going to make smoked salmon chowder. And rather than a blurry photograph of fish in dark water, I’ll show you the quilt I’m still at work on, sewing akoya buttons onto the batiked salmon who are swimming both upstream and downstream, to their own deaths and towards their lives.


creek walk

We’re waiting for the coho salmon to enter Haskins Creek. They have arrived as early as late November and as late as the period between Christmas and New Year. The water level in the creek is low and I think the fish are probably hanging around in Sakinaw Lake into which Haskins Creek empties. We walk over every few days and peer hopefully into the water but no fish yet. I think they are my favourite fish on earth (or in water), their clean burgundy and dark green bodies in the clear creek, the dark jacks darting among them. (Jacks are called grilse on the east coast. And I was delighted to learn that the spawned-out fish are called kelts.) I think of how far they’ve migrated from this small creek in their infancy and how they find it again as adults, every departure and return entailing a long swim through Sakinaw Lake, entering the sea or leaving it.

Waiting for them reminds me of the way patience is at the heart of so much of my life. It’s not an easy virtue  — if it is a virtue. My mother always insisted it was. This morning I was awake early and came down to work on the essay I have in progress: “Euclid’s Orchard.” It’s about language, genetics, mathematics with its attendant difficulties, love, and why we’ve abandoned our own orchard, leaving it to the bears and deer who kept breaking down the fences, eating the fruit before we could pick it, and now the elk who’ve also discovered it. It’s about patterns and how they both echo and transmutate, crossing the borders of one discipline or landscape and finding themselves at home in another. But I sat at my desk and didn’t know where to go next. If there’s a pathway from what I’ve written to what I need to write next, it’s hidden.

I worked on my current salmon quilt instead, my needle following the spiral I am stitching into a panel of indigo cotton printed with raindrops. Spirals lead me to think about labyrinths. There’s one in the parking lot of one of the churches in Sechelt and I’ve seen people walking slowly between the painted lines. I know that some use labyrinths as a way to leave the outside world and concentrate the mind. As I stitch, I feel the texture of cotton in my hands, as soft of a work-shirt, and I think of all the hopes I have for both the quilt I am making and the essay I’m writing. Not hopes for them as commodities or as a means to fame and fortune (ha!) but as distillations of everything I feel and know about the world. Of what I don’t know yet and hope to discover as I write and stitch, the beautiful textures revealing themselves slowly, in a way I might not even recognize if not for patience.

I believe the fish will come. The creek is waiting, and the cedars and ferns which will draw up nitrogen from the abundance in the spawned out bodies.


The woods were quiet and we almost missed the American dipper who was standing on this branch over a vernal pond, taking a break from its foraging for aquatic larvae.


There were raindrops in the pond, only a few, so that you could see the ripples as they spread out over the surface, each ripple moving away from the centre into the unknown.

waiting (and sewing)

At dinner with friends last week, we learned that coho have been seen in one of the local creeks. The next morning — Saturday — we went to our own Haskins Creek to see if the run we’ve watched for more than twenty years had begun. Not that day, though eagles were around, waiting, and the air was redolent with the promise of fish.

Nor were they in the creek on Monday. Nor today — though when I walked right to the creek mouth, I saw one leap about ten feet off shore, in the lake itself. It was dark green and red, the colours these fish wear in fresh water, when they’re ready to spawn. And farther off, there was a small group of mergansers, also waiting.

I’ve been quilting this week and have finished half of the light blue squares with their elegant spirals; seven of the indigo squares, printed with salmon, have their buttons.  I think the individual elements are coming together nicely. It’s beginning to look more like a quilt than an idea. And working away on it, sewing on the shell buttons which resemble small bright eggs in the bodies of the salmon, I see that the deep red sashing between the squares is like the blood of these fish. Which makes me think that I will quilt small circles in the sashing — the life cycle, from the beginnings (eggs in gravel) to the alevins emerging, the juvenile period in fresh water, the young adults feeding on invertebrates in the ocean itself, their migration back to their home creek where courtship and spawning occurs.