cell by cell

afternoon deck

It felt like summer on this deck (with its bronze fish). Huge bees, bombus spp. of some sort (orange rumps…), going from flower to flower—crocus, daffodils, forsythia, low yellow primula. I planted out the seedlings of sugar peas I started indoors on March 16th. They were a foot tall and ready for their bed in Wave (the box where there’s a good screen of chicken wire for them to grow up against). I also transplanted some tiny kale seedlings, self-sown, in Long Eye. (My vegetable beds have names. What can I say.)

Over the past week I finished another of the essays for the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. The process of writing these essays feels a little like the fall of 2016, when I’d been tentatively diagnosed with something serious and I felt that I couldn’t waste time. I’d get up in the night and come down to my desk to work on the material that became Euclid’s Orchard. There was urgency in the work and also the daily rhythm of my life. I have no regrets, either for the sense that time was limited and I needed to use it well, and for the headlong energy I expended during that period. I felt lucky. I lived with someone I loved and who I knew would accompany me on any dark path that beckoned. I had a wonderful extended family. (Still have!) This work has that same urgency, though (as far as I know) I am strong and healthy. When I wake in the night, I have the sense that everything I know is connected, that I need to find way to stitch it all together like a useful and beautiful length of tapestry. Everything is connected, the flight of the bumblebees, the starlight, a pileated woodpecker just beyond my garden, drumming on a Douglas fir, the small blue scribble of my grandfather’s signature—he was learning to sign his name on a scrap of paper and mostly he gives up on the first syllable of his surname (my surname) but a single version is complete—the new chives so green and pungent in their pots on the deck.

The essay I just finished, “blueprints”, takes me back to house-building, the beginnings of our family, and then reaches back, back, to my grandparents’ years in Beverly, then a community outside Edmonton and now part of the city. It reaches back to the extraordinary photographer Anna Atkins, whose cyanotypes are botanical studies in blue and white. It ends with an informal picnic on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River as the ice breaks up, the ice I saw forming in late November as we drove across the Walterdale Bridge on our way to the Emergency ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital because my retinas were trying to detach, the result of a hard fall on ice.

What I did today was shadowed by bees, their orange rumps glowing in sunlight. They entered the trumpets of daffodils, hovered over warm soil, paused from time to time on the sleeve of my flannel shirt.

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

—Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

“She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweed.”

eel grass

Two passages from “blueprints”. a work-in-progress.

She wrote some of her captions in delicate seaweeds. Her blueprints are a hoard of perfect quilt blocks waiting to be arranged and stitched. They are like scraps of summer sky. They are a world made perfect, young algae, fruiting examples, a dreamworld, a blue heaven, where the tiniest plants float through a blue sea, nothing to damage them, almost two hundred years old and as alive as anything I’ve ever seen.

Fucus vesiculosus, Polypodium vulgare, Leucojam varium, Cystopteris dentaria, Asplenium septentrionale, Punctaria latifolia, Bortrychium lunaria, blue paper haunted with their images, as I am haunted by them, by a woman who sought, identified, collected, and dried plants, immersed sheets of paper in ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, arranged the plants, set glass over them, positioned them in sunlight, timed, waited, rinsed the sheets in clear water, and left a vast garden of white on blue for us to wonder at centuries after.

He made the drawings. He sat at the desk overlooking Burrard Inlet after his teaching job finished for the day, putting aside his poems. He made marks, erased, used the three-sided ruler I sometimes take out for special quilt measurements. (Nothing is wasted.) He rolled the big sheets of paper with our house carefully imagined, no perspective, nor the distance from the eaves to the peak, but a way to see our way to building the platforms, the walls sheathed in plywood, the joists and beams to carry our roof aloft, and he took them to a place off Marine Drive in North Vancouver where they were reproduced by the process that replaced blueprint (not unlike the process used by Anna Atkins to preserve what she loved in white lines on blue paper, the negative image of what she placed on a page in sunlight). The term “blueprint” is still used for reproductions of architectural drawings and floor plans, though when John took our drawings to the office to have copies made, the process had become a form of xerography. No longer Prussian blue, no longer a page of sky showing how a house might be viewed from an angle impossible for me to apprehend. Now we’d probably hold up a phone or my small Samsung tablet, loaded with plans we could zoom in on, scroll, turn to see alternate views; looking at the little screen, we’d determine the dimensions of the lumber we needed to cut and piece together to make a house. A home.