“So a road becomes a series of tracks, byways, trails into the mystery.”


About a month ago,  I found myself not only writing an essay, “A Dark Path”, but also thinking about how and why I wrote it. This is not the way I usually work. I mean, yes, I write, and yes, I think, but I don’t often see the process that takes me from one to the other so clearly. Or at least not while I am in the heat of writing. Writing is a very intuitive process for me. I don’t start with a plan. I don’t think I’ve ever made an outline. You might be thinking, Well, it shows. (A book of my essays was once turned down by a publisher who scolded me for what he sternly called “a scattergun approach.”) I’m not making an argument for all writers to work the way I do. But I also feel confident (or as confident as someone can be, at this moment, knowing that all the other uncertainties are part of my writing life too) that I’ve evolved a method that is true to what I need to do.

I’m working on a series of connected essays, of which “A Dark Path” is one. I didn’t begin this body of work thinking that I’d be writing individual pieces. I’d thought I was going to write a memoir called Blue Portugal, an extended single text, probably book-length, about family history, wine, genetics, and the colour blue. Blue Portugal? It’s the name of a wine we drank in the Czech Republic when we were invited to teach a short course about B.C. literature at Masaryk University in Brno. I was discovering something of my grandmother’s past when we were there. I’ve written about this before. But I wanted to immerse myself in what I knew, what I could discover, and everything in-between, because it seems to me that part of what we do when we write about the past is to imagine how the spaces might be filled in. The wine seemed like a good touchstone for this investigation because the grape, called Modrý Portugal in the CR, Blauer Portugiese in Austria, Portugizac Plavi in Croatia, Kékoportó in Hungary, and so on, was thought to have come to Austria from Portugal in the 18th century.  But recent research by scientists at the Julius Kühn-Institute (JKI), Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof, Siebeldingen, Germany determined that the origins of the grape lie in Lower Styria.  I read a paper on this research and was fascinated by how much the work of contemporary ampelographers resembles my own obsession with the early lives of my grandparents, and theirs, and theirs. The paper concluded:

The knowledge about grapevine cultivars progenitors discloses the genetic composition and geographical origin of cultivars, assists to trace back migration routes and to estimate their distribution and importance in former times.

As I’ve been working on Blue Portugal, I find myself taking side-roads. Sometimes those side-roads don’t want to return to the main road. One of them has become “The Blue Etymologies” and it’s the one that calls to me in the night (though luckily not last night because honestly I wanted a whole night of dreams, not a few hours here, an hour there). I’ve been writing about the process of dyeing with indigo and woad and then was surprised that another thread entered the essay in early December after I’d fallen and damaged my retinas. When my ophthalmologist told me that the visual patterns I’d been experiencing, both as a result of the injury and during the examinations with bright lights, were called “entoptic phenomena”, that led me to find out everything I could about the various forms of the phenomena and also what they meant to people who experienced them. That side-road led to others—trails leading to caves used by paleolithic artists to record their own experiences of entoptic phenomena, paths to rooms where people experimented with psychotropic mixtures to summon the phenomena, and even, through Derek Jarman’s sublime Chroma, the urge of artists to use colour to map the soul.


And all the while, writing this essay, I’ve also been sewing, working on two quilts, one “A Dark Path” and one a small indigo-dyed panel I’m quilting with spirals. In one of the books I’ve been reading, by the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, I was startled to learn that my work with spirals can be interpreted as a valid response to the damage done to my retina:

The exact way in which entoptic phenomena are ‘wired into’ the human nervous system has been a topic of recent research. It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as VI) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form…In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into iconic forms.

So a road becomes a series of tracks, byways, trails into the mystery. Sometimes I feel as though I’m sewing a map to my own history and sometimes, well, I have no idea where I’m going. I close my eyes. There’s light, spirals, stars falling from winter skies. And blue, so much blue.


“I remember the silver light…”


Yesterday I was outside by the bench where I do my indigo dyeing in better weather. I was thinking about the long essay I’m current writing on blue, its various incarnations, and visual disturbances. The research has led me into the most amazing areas of scholarship, unknown to me before I fell on ice in Edmonton in November and tore the retina in my right eye. My son Forrest mentioned Oliver Sacks and his experience with indigo and so I read his collection of essays, Hallucinations.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

                          (Oliver Sacks, “Altered States”)

After that I was interested in the idea that the entoptic phenonoma I’d experienced before the retinal tear was diagnosed might be something one could induce. I’m not sure I want to induce them but I found myself thinking about the intense beauty I’d been reluctant to admit was the result of damage to my eye. The blue in particular, the blue of the sky billowing with white clouds: if I was a believer, I might have thought I was seeing heaven.

It hadn’t occurred to me that a person could summon indigo. My own recipe for producing it was pretty tame. Indigo powder (which is sourced from a farm in India, not grown in my garden and fermented in a vat),thiourea dioxide, lye, synthropol soap, and soda ash. I use vinegar for rinsing the dyed fabrics. Some of these are caustic but none, as far as I know, is capable of generating hallucinations.

Would I use a cocktail of hallucinogens to see that inner sky again? Would I mix a little of my precious vial of homemade cannabis tincture (Texada Timewarp buds soaked in Silent Sam vodka) with something else more powerful if it meant I could look upon that cracked red desert beyond my irises? An inner landscape entirely my own. I don’t know. But I would be in good company. Dr. Sacksand those who entered the caves perhaps 35,000 years ago to paint horses, bison, ibex, a gallery of lions, their own hands outlined in hematite.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress

Right now I’m reading The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. It’s quite a provocative analysis of the origins of image-making, the evolution of symbolic activity, and how certain percepts are wired into the human nervous system. I think of the spirals, the gridwork, the zigzag lines that are part of the complex non-representational patterns we see in cave art, existing alongside the most beautiful and coherent images of animals, keenly observed and anatomically represented. The quartet of horses in Chauvet, the polychrome bison in Altamira. The finger-flutings in mud in the Cosquer Cave. The finger-drawn grids in Hornos, in Spain.

I read, and I write, and I wait for better weather in order to set up my dye vat and pursue my own indigo dream.

I remember the silver light falling beside my face, like the tails of shooting stars, in the dark cave of my bed at night, fearful and blessed, and how I will try to replicate that sensation—not just the visual beauty but the awe—in some way for the rest of my life.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”


a dark path

How a quilt begins. You are sorting fabric and you see a path of dark blue in the scraps and small squares. There is a length, perhaps 4 feet by 16 inches, of deep indigo silk with a beautiful pattern woven in, at random. Could you run that down a piece of light muslin and then cobble a path alongside it with the pieces, fitting them together as you might fit stones together, as you did once for a path to the outhouse when you were young, with just one baby, and all the time in the world?


It would be a dark path, it would be the path you have walked for the past two years. Not an unhappy one but you needed to think about (or hope for) the light at the end of it. There was a double pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism, some chest xrays that revealed possible metastases. There were scans of several sorts, including one where you were injected with radioactive tracers, covered with warm blankets, in a dark room listening to Bach, and then you were asked to lie on a table which entered a PET scanner and where you kept your eyes closed because if you’d opened them, who knows what you would have seen?

The dark path would be the one you fell on in late November and fractured your tailbone and, without knowing for several days, tore a hole in your right retina. It was a path that also led to your family so you have no regrets.

And look, some of the scraps are greyblue silk, embroidered with flowers, a few sequins scattered across the surface. So the darkness is never without beauty.


What if you make the cobbled path and then border it on the other side with a length of ikat, deep blue with silvery streaks running down it? It would be the moment when you first knew that something was wrong with your eye because you realized the light falling past your face was not reflected light from your silver earrings but something inside your vision.

Looking at my piece of paper, I parse the word “entoptic”: from the Greek, meaning inside light or vision. I read about blue field entoptic phenomenon or Scheerer’s phenomenon, moving white dots are actually white blood cells flowing in the capillaries in front of the retina. Some people think that the experience is like seeing heaven, an aspect of consciousness, an apprehension of angels. I saw billowing clouds in the deepest blue sky, and the clouds were moving across the sky just as clouds move when one looks up for a sustained period at a summer sky. But my experience of that blue and its white clouds was brief. Brief and as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen. And it was within my eye, apprehended in the light of an ophthalmologist’s instrument. When she removed the instrument, I was in an examining room in a high tower while snow whirled around the windows and the river froze under the bridge we would have to cross on our way home.

I learn that the silver light that fell to the periphery of my vision was caused by little waves in the vitreous jelly hitting the retina. The fall on ice had caused these coruscations and sitting in the dark, at the Grindstone Theatre watching an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker, and lying in my dark room at the Airbnb, trying to ease the pain in my tailbone, I mused that it was like seeing the summer meteor showers, the shimmer of light as the meteors entered the earth’s upper atmosphere and burned up in a display of brilliance in the night.

—from “The Blue Etymologies”, a work-in-progress


blue windows


Yesterday I had a laser procedure to mend a retinal tear in one of my eyes; the other eye is being monitored because of suspected vitreous detachment. This is probably a result of my fall on ice in Edmonton last week. I thought I had a badly bruised and possibly cracked coccyx (my doctor confirmed that either or both are likely) but then developed some visual, well, not problems exactly because the experience was very beautiful but apparently beauty is not a consideration when your retina is torn. You need to have it repaired, and as quickly as possible. I’m lucky.

Yesterday I asked my (new to me) ophthalmologist about some things I’d seen while being examined in the Royal Alexandra Hospital’s Eye Institute on Sunday evening (another lucky thing, because there just happened to be a young ophthalmologist in the Institute who was willing to examine me and who alerted me to the necessity of immediate action once we were back on the Coast) and he told me I’d experienced “entoptic phenomena”, visual effects within my eye. I won’t detail those right now because they fit so beautifully into an essay I am writing called “The Blue Etymologies”, an exploration of the colour blue, my work with indigo dye (the image at the beginning of this post is cotton dyed last year), some old blueprints associated with my grandparents in the 1940s Beverly (then a small mining community just outside Edmonton but now part of the city), some cyanotype prints by the 19th century English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, and some other elements a little too complicated to explain just now.

The world of our senses is extraordinary and profound. We see, and then we realize how that happens. We have intense lights directed into our eyes and we see images so beautiful that we weep. Maybe a little because of the discomfort of a cracked tailbone as we sit on the examining chair and the pressure of the ophthalmologist’s tools. But maybe we have been given something else. When I was trying to describe this sensation to my son Forrest on the phone the other evening, he wondered if I’d read Oliver Sacks’s essay, “Altered States”, in which he sees indigo. No, I hadn’t. But yesterday, before my medical appointment, I found a copy at our library and read the essay last night before sleep.

I had long wanted to see “true” indigo, and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, “I want to see indigo — now!”

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture. It was the colour of heaven…

His methodology sounds a little more interesting than mine (a hard fall on the butt and a torn retina) but yes, that was it. The colour of heaven. Right before, or rather inside, my eye. He never found it again.