Your daily French reminder.

Mostly I like the dailiness of my life. Sure, there are boring times but mostly there’s stuff to do that gives me a sense of purpose. My writing. My garden. My family. Quilts. Friendships. The work I do with my fellow organizers of the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival.

Yesterday was not one of those days. I was in a deep funk over the garden, wondering how to cope with the latest round of damage done by marauding ungulates. Elk this time. When we returned from Ottawa last Tuesday, I immediately knew that animals had broken into the garden. What is usually a green tangle was…bare. I couldn’t look so waited until the next morning.  For more than 30 years, we’ve relied on a fence of 8 foot high black deer-proof mesh. It works. Or has worked. I think the theory is that animals don’t see it and bump up against it, which freaks them out. Ours is strung tightly on 12 foot lengths of rebar sunk into the ground. Sinking sounds, well, easy. And it wasn’t easy because the ground is hardpan. When we rebuilt the garden in 2013 after our septic field needed work, we built boxes of recycled cedar boards and most of the beds are framed this way. Some are long barrows — the raspberry beds, for example. There are paths (that are also the lines of the field so that we can get to any potential problems without having to dig up the whole garden). I think of my vegetable garden as its own place. There’s an apple tree, many roses, lilies, perennials, and lively populations of snakes, tree frogs, some long-toed salamanders, butterflies, bees, and of course pests—slugs, woodbugs, wasps (and I only think of them as pests late in the season; when I watch them early in summer, scouring scale insects and aphids off the roses and other plants, I’m glad to have them there). A few weeks ago, we were in the kitchen and saw a doe coming up from the old orchard with her twins and John said (fatal last words), Well, at least they can’t get into the garden. 8 minutes later I was at an upstairs window and I saw the fawns on the driveway and the doe eating kale plants inside the garden. I raced out and chased her out, her escape route being to simply crash through the mesh. I could see that she got in by pushing underneath the gate. In 8 minutes she’d done a lot of damage. She ate bean vines, a lot of the kale, nibbled the squash plants, and feasted on the arugula. We repaired the section of fence she’d pulled down as she escaped and put a heavy section of old cedar railing against the gate to fortify it. (It made getting in and out a bit of a weightlifting session but no matter.)

I did have a sense of foreboding as we came home last week. It’s been so dry and the woods are parched. The garden is watered regularly and word was obviously out that there was lush greenery to be had by simply pushing through the mesh. And the next morning I went out to see that raspberry leaves, apple boughs, all the kale, the winter lettuce and squash, the lilies, everything green and succulent, had been eaten. Tell-tale scats everywhere so there was no mistaking it was elk.

Last night I dreamed of the garden and its current state. I dreamed of Donald Trump ordering people—mostly children—onto trains going to a terrible concentration camp (I don’t even want to type the name). I dreamed of our water gone bad. Yesterday, after the heaviest rainfall we’ve ever had here, I was running a bath when suddenly black water gushed out of the tap. For a few hours that was the situation, though the water was brown, then slightly discoloured, no longer black. We have a well, a deep well drilled into granite and dependent on underground aquifer; the water never changes. We wondered if our 37 years of good luck with our water had come to an end. But this morning things look better. We have some theories and time will tell if we’re right. Keep your fingers crossed?

In the night I was awake worrying about all these things. The elk, the water, the state of the world. When I realized it was morning, I didn’t want to get up. What for? At some point I need to figure out what to do about the garden. Chain-link fence? 10 feet high? Expensive. And so much work.

But just now, opening my email, there was the message: Your daily French reminder. I’ve been trying to learn French so that I will be able to keep up with my two grandsons in Ottawa. The older one moves effortlessly between English and French. His Francophone grandmother graciously talks to me in English and I’d like to try to respond to her in French. I have the usual Canadian high school French but of course never used it. I can read French, simple texts at least, but have always felt self-conscious about my limited voabulary and terrible grammar. But I’m determined to become more fluent. And daily practice seems the best solution. Part of the dailiness I seem to need to be productive.

sideboard

Meanwhile, John is in the kitchen (where I’m hoping the taps are running clear), preparing to tile the top of a free-standing counter area we had made for us and picked up on our way home from Ottawa. In a kitchen, things accumulate. In ours, a small convection oven and a well-used slow-cooker have kept company on a pine table under some windows across the kitchen from the actual work area. I had in mind a cupboard for that corner, with a surface safe enough for the little oven and other appliances. I wanted deep cupboards big enough for all the casserole dishes and so forth that are currently on some open shelves (so that they need to be washed every time I use them!). I kept looking in second-hand stores but nothing showed up. So we had a guy in Gibsons who makes beautiful furniture and entire kitchens (if you can afford them) make this piece to our specifications. We asked for the top to be plywood so that John could tile it with Mexican tiles given to us by friends who had some leftover when they built their house some years ago. The box of tiles has been waiting for the right project and this is it.

tiles

Something has shifted. Climate, political weather, how we treat one another on this planet, and even the habits of animals. When I was looking through photographs on the camera card, I saw one I took yesterday, as the monsoon was letting up (though before I ran a tap to see black water gushing out), and I think I want to keep it close for the next while.

rainbow

This is the same window I looked out to see the doe in my garden. You can see the dead cedars Hydro will cut down this fall (victims of the drought) and mercifully you can’t see the ravaged condition of the garden. But that’s a rainbow, a small one, arching over my view.

the living

On this morning’s walk, I saw signs everywhere of the living. A few weeks ago, it was the dead — the spawned-out salmon, the skeleton of an elk, even my own heart feeling emptied somehow. (Christmas over, children gone back to their daily lives, the tree undressed and put on the burning pile…) But today — a chorus of frogs loud in the woods, these woods —

these woods— and two ravens klooking loud overhead, full of intention (and possibly nesting nearby). Swelling buds in the salmonberry thickets, though it will be another three weeks (I predict!) before the first cerise petals ease themselves out of the sepals. And in the garden, the first primulas in bloom, low among the leaves,

primulaand enough shoots of fennel to flavour a salad,

fennelwhich might have a few leaves of red-veined sorrel:

saladWhile I was looking at new life in the garden, a tree-frog was singing hopefully nearby, though I couldn’t find it for a photograph. Every year they lay eggs in the old bath-tub turned into a garden pool and every year I find them among the parsley or curled up in the cool green garden hoses or climbing the window by the dining table. Here’s one from last year and it might even be the one I heard singing:

P1090535

“all remnants of disaster”

On our walk this morning, I stopped to take a couple of photographs of parts of a skeleton we first saw about this time last week. The remains of an elk, I’m pretty sure — I brought back two toes last week to clean and save and they’re larger than our Columbia blacktail deer toes. I looked for the skull but it wasn’t around, dragged off by a coyote, I bet. And this week some of the leg bones were also missing. I bent a little to take this shot —

P1110160— and had a sudden clear memory of seeing the ribcage of a cow or bullock on a grassy area above the water on the Irish island where I lived for a time in 1978.

I was 23 and in retreat from the life I’d lived in North America. I wanted something but I couldn’t have told you what. Well, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to test myself. I’d walk the island — it wasn’t big and there weren’t trees to block the view — and it seemed that everything asked to be noticed. The hedges of fuchsia, the children walking to and from the schoolhouse, the sound of their lessons from the open windows, a calf bawling for its mother, someone stacking turf (the bricks of peat which were cut and brought from mainland bogs as the island had no source of its own), the hum of a generator (no electricity either), a currach returning to the quay and men helping to untangle the nets and pots used for fishing, the frail notes of a tinwhistle from a doorway. I loved trips to the mainland when I’d tag along with someone rowing over in a currach, the wood-framed boats of the west of Ireland, covered with canvas (though with skins once).

inishbream image
This is how a currach was carried down to the water. It’s a wood-engraving by John DePol, made for my novella Inishbream.

The ribcage on the grasswas like polished ivory and I sketched it, I remember. Later I saw a spine — from the same animal? I don’t know — and that made it into a poem:

The things I find I leave:

a great spine of a bullock

on the west beach

the shards of a tern’s egg.

Brought back 3 ribs

of a currach once

and dreamed all night

of storms and drowning

and when I burned them

in the morning

I saw the craft complete

itself in the flame.

There is nothing beyond here.

They tell me America lies west

and I have looked forever

beyond Slyne Head,

have seen only waves

bullying the fishermen,

have seen only a horizon

too far away for sailing.

All remnants of disaster

catch on these rocks:

there is shipwood, a lobster pot,

a strand of net, myself,

not buried or blessed

but given land underneath,

the sting of an iodine wind

telling us this might be home.

It’s a strange experience to read something written almost 40 years ago. I’m amused a little by the melodrama (I felt I was a remnant of disaster, having run away from unrequited love among other things, but was I really?) but also grateful for the unexpected connections that are often part of the process of writing. The bone frame of the bullock echoing the structure of the currach —

currach1-150x150— the lilt of the language, the gift of the word “craft” at that point in the poem as well as in my life.

When I saw the skeleton last week, it was because it was unexpected. (When you walk in the same place over time, your eyes readily see what’s different.) And I didn’t expect to be taken back to that grassy place just outside the cemetery on one of my solitary walks around the island’s circumference where the beautiful weathered ribs taught me something about writing and where several months later a currach took me on the first leg of my long journey home.

what do they see?

Last week, six elk passed my window as I sat at my desk, musing. And this morning, at 6:30, I looked out to see the waning gibbous moon tangled in the highest limbs of the fir trees to the south of our house. And just before sleep last night, a northern saw-whet owl calling quite close (maybe even in those same fir trees). What do they see, looking at our house from their place in the trees or just passing at the edge of the forest? The elk saw me watching them and dissolved into the woods. But they did see me, sitting at this desk, through the window. I don’t know about the owl. Did it wait until it saw our lights go out to begin its night-hunting? I looked just now for a sign of it — white-wash or pellets filled with tiny bones below the trees. But nothing. As for the elk, they left a trail of droppings and the deep print of their toes in soft moss. And the moon? A memory of its soft-edged shape in the trees, its light.

March 21

Lower elevations in fall

Last evening we were out for a walk around the Sakinaw loop, a route that takes us down Sakinaw Lake Road to the lake itself, then along a trail through the woods to our own driveway. It’s a walk I love in all seasons. In spring the bigleaf maples all along the road produce their chartreuse flowers, sweet as honey, and bright with warblers. There’s a section of ditch where masses of maidenhair ferns grow, too, the delicate fronds held aloft by black-laquered stems. In summer the maples create deep and welcome shade. We often gather bags of maple leaves from this area to mulch our garden and often there are rough-skinned newts hiding in the leaves, waiting for the day to warm up enough for them to make the great trek across the road. Sometimes we find them frozen in place if the sun’s vanished before they make it to their destination but holding them in my palms for a few minutes usually revives them. There’s always a day in late fall when I smell fish and know the coho are in the creek that runs down off Mount Hallowell to enter Sakinaw Lake, a long length of water fed by many such creeks, some of which are home streams for coho. There’s also a race of sockeye salmon native to the lake — alas, almost extinct. The coho run is the hinge of the year, beginning in December, usually around the Solstice, and continuing into January.

On our walk last evening, we were just about to take the trail through the woods when we heard loud crashing ahead of us. We stopped, expecting a bear. Instead, we saw a bull elk, maybe the same guy who visited earlier our place earlier in summer. (It’s more usual to see them up the mountain, as we often do when hiking there, but the field guide says they move to lower elevations in fall.) He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. And he was beautiful. John, who was wearing his glasses, counted five points on each antler. The full complement is six, so he was maybe a three year old. But huge.  Deep brown with a golden rump. He stood absolutely still for a few moments, watching us, and we did the same. We could hear his cows in the woods, moving about. Then he trotted off into the trees and all that was left was his smell, and the smell of his harem, as pungent as horses.