the things we wake to

At 5:30, the smell of smoke. (Every window open.) Came down to check and yes, there’s a fire nearby, about 15 minutes south of us, on Cecil Hill, overlooking the little townsite of Madeira Park. Where we shop. Where we are preparing for our 15th Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival in August, where my children went to elementary school, where the government wharf is. All morning the water bombers (skimmers, these ones are called) have been swooping down over Sakinaw Lake, the helicopters are dipping their buckets in one of the calm bays nearer the fire. It was 2.25 hectares last night as we were eating mussels at the Backeddy Pub, oblivious, watching for whales (not lucky enough last night). Just now? 5 hectares. And people on evacuation alert.

I didn’t go back to sleep but when I got up a couple of hours later, the rabbit (now we are thinking it’s a snowshoe hare or snowshoe rabbit, Lepus americanus) was grazing peacefully just below the deck off our bedroom. I watched it for quite a while and realized it was eating, almost methodically, yellow hawkweed.

morning hare

We’ve seen it every morning now for the last 6 days, always near the forest edge. They prefer dense understory, apparently, and that’s what we have. That’s what’s burning on Cecil Hill. First thing, the reports were that the trees weren’t on fire but the underbrush and this time of year? Oh, it’s dry. The salal is desiccated in areas, the duff—old leaves, stems, the crisp moss—like fire-starter. Which it is. And has. The Cecil Hill fire is believed to be human-caused.

So smoke and hares and the experience of being elsewhere, in a way, because I’m editing my novella, set mostly around the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, even in them at times. Years ago we took Brendan and Cristen white-water rafting down the Thompson River, from Spences Bridge to Lytton, and at quiet points along the river, the guide encouraged us to swim. I expected it to be cold and it wasn’t, really. It was green and deep and one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, drifting alongside the raft, hanging onto a rope. There are moments like that in the novella, and also much sadder ones, but now I am looking for a title that carries the rivers in it, graceful, dangerous, and deeply historied. I keep making notes but I don’t think I have the right one yet.

These were the things I woke to: the smoke (so evocative in winter, when it’s our own fire in the woodstove, keeping us warm, reminding us of every winter we’ve spent here, building the fire each morning, drawn to it from other parts of the house to talk and share a glass of wine late in the afternoon); the snowshoe hare, like an emissary, its mouth full of hawkweed and its ears twitching; and the prospect of time in the rivers, or near them, if only on paper. Here’s a little passage to remind me, and you, too.

Our bodies are porous. They take in river water, sunlight, the scent of Artemisa frigida, dust from bone dry slopes, dust of bones themselves littered on the talus (bighorn sheep, marmots, the tiny hollow leg bone of birds eaten and excreted by coyotes, sand particles), pollen from ponderosa pines, midges, spores too minute to affect anything other than a lung, fine hairs of mule deer, the stink of migrating salmon. Over us, the deep blue sky, through us the air so warm and clear we breathe it in deeply and it doesn’t seem altered when we exhale yet the work of our bodies is there too. And helium, beryllium, and carbon, iron and nickel, the dust from dying stars.

“…full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys…”

fraser below lillooet

From a work-in-progress:

I find the rivers I love, the ones I dream about. I find them in the atlas and realize they too have their difficulties. They rise in springs or seep from marshes or the melting of glaciers, they gather, they flow, so clean in their beginnings, and unless they become grounded or are endorheic, they arrive at the great oceans of the world full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys. There will have been diversions. There will have been accidents. There might have been meanders and braidings and temporary islands and dams.

A deep river, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
And such goings on: red blossoms glaring with white!

Among spring’s vociferous glories, I too have my place:
With a lovely wine, bidding life’s affairs bon voyage.

“the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno”

fraser below lillooet
The Fraser River, below Lillooet

At 2 a.m., I was awake and thinking about the essay I thought I’d finished last night. I’d worked on it yesterday morning, then had to go down the coast to do errands, but as soon as I got home, I was back at my desk. I thought I had it and I went to bed with that deep satisfaction that comes when you complete something. Until I woke in the wee hours with the sense that there was still more to do. So I came downstairs, feeling my way in the dark, and switched on my small desk lamp that always makes me feel that I am in the best place in the world: my own room with its deep rose walls and Giotto ceiling, my books and papers all around me (some would say in disarray but mostly I know where everything is). I heard owls. The cat was delighted to find me awake.

Sometimes I feel constrained by form. I think of the essay in a particular way and I think I am writing that kind of essay. An argument, an anecdote, a piece of non-fiction (a term I dislike, esp. when paired with “creative”), a reflective narrative (on occasion), a memoir-ish construction, a series of questions and answers. A beginning, an ending. I’ve written versions of this essay and I know I will write other versions in the future. But the essay I’ve been working on is something else. It’s both objective and subjective. The passages based on memory or history are reconstructed and might not be objectively true. The passages based on human physiology are imaginary voyages into my own body. Its geography is dependent upon maps that might not be accurate in the Cartesian sense but I think the heart would approve. (Mine does. At least it does this morning.)

In the small hours, I realized that I had to push the actual physical structure more than I had by simply deciding to move some of the sections to a right-handed margin. Yes, I was pleased with how this worked but I wanted less reliance on river banks and dams and more flooding. So that’s what I did. I sat with my paper draft and tried to see how I could use the space to make my language advance its imagery and its innuendos. The final draft (or final until this morning) is nearly 7000 words and there is a structure, yes, but it’s not the kind I usually employ. There are connections across time and space. You’ll notice them if you give up the expectation that one thing leads to another in a straightforward pattern. Here’s a short passage from section 14.

the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek,

Coldwater, and the Kispiox where my children waded on a hot day in July, the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno and the sweet Hoh and Queets and Ozette where I camped as a young woman, the Snake, the Escalante and Kanab, the Lost and the Warm and the Coeur d’Alene,

the Kern, the Mad, Klamath and Rowdy Creek,

the Lost, the Elk,

and the one I walk to season after season, near my home, where coho salmon swim in by starlight

and mergansers wait to feed on their eggs.

And if I sound excited, it’s because I am. Every time I finish something, I wonder if I’ve written everything I have to write. Maybe that’s it. And then I write something else. I’m kind of looking at my clutter (it’s an organized clutter. Maybe.) and wondering what I might find if I move things around.

Oh, and I still don’t have a title.

 

“I am haunted by waters.”

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

It was somehow our river

above the Fraser

We’ve had a wonderful week with two of our grandchildren, the two from Edmonton, who arrived with their parents, and were ready for books, walks, collecting bouquets of leaves, singing “Over in the Meadow” over and over again, as well as hearing Curious George Goes To The Hospital. John had surgery mid-week so the book was read many times in anticipation of that as well as once he arrived home after a night in the hospital. The grandchildren even visited their grandfather briefly in the hospital. Henry, who is 1, shouted loudly as he presented a branch of berried greenery and a stuffed Santa (self-chosen) that farted “Deck the Halls” when the bum was pressed. Kelly, who is 3, was a little less brave and perhaps disappointed that there were no monkeys sliding down banisters or upsetting dinner carts.

While they were here, I put my own work aside for the pleasure of their company. And this morning, I am finding my way back into it. But a book about the beautiful Thompson and Fraser Rivers, the roads leading to them, and away, has me wishing for a road trip. Not a late fall trip, though. An early summer one, with bluebirds, and pollen, and drifts of arrow-leaved balsamroot. That dry air. The sound of Clark’s nutcrackers.

So I will write about those things instead of walking into sage and rabbit-brush. Instead of stopping to dream my way into abandoned cabins, heating the coffee in a small fire in a ring of stones.

I needed to drive. I needed to drive up the river, try to follow it to Kamloops where I also hoped to find Ethel Wilson, or at least a trace of her on the landscape she’d written about in Swamp Angel. I would be following the river back from where it had claimed you, James, back through its deep canyon in the desert north of Spences Bridge (I felt I knew it intimately between Spences Bridge to Lytton, the section you loved and where, when I swam in its warm waters, I was in your company for a brief and sweet time), gardens and remnants of old orchards on the shrub-steppes between Ashcroft and Kamloops, and maybe beyond, to the more verdant corridors along its southern route from its outlet at Little Shuswap Lake. One day I would also explore its northern arm’s sinuous flow from its glacial origins near Blue River to where it joined the south arm at Kamloops. I wanted to know it all. It was somehow our river, mine and yours. Thinking of it that way made me shiver a little and I tried to ignore the rattling noise my truck made every time I accelerated on the wide sections of the highway.

5A

postcards, the Fraser Canyon

One of my favourite drives on earth, through the tunnels, along the Fraser River,  the Ponderosa beginning around Boston Bar and fringing the highway like Japanese wood engravings. The smells, every element in its place — the river and a few raindrops, the soft air (and every house on the Siska Reserve with a screened shed for drying salmon), ochre and flinty soil, the smoke from a distant fire on the west side of the river, brought back to life by the wind. Here’s the Alexandra Lodge, more derelict every year (and for information on the Lodge and its storied history, here’s a wonderful site: http://www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6alexandralodge.html ) :

alexandra-lodge

 And here’s the Thompson River, losing itself in the grey Fraser:

rivers

It was the Two Rivers Farmers Market in Lytton so we stopped, bought seed garlic to plant when we get home (an Uzbek variety), listened to Willard play old rock numbers on a guitar while the wind blew and the sellers were friendly and you could see why the market was named best small farmers market in B.C. last year. Then we took Highway 12 from Lytton to Lillooet, driving along the river where rabbit brush grew dense and yellow along the roadside, and finding ourselves in the least charming motel we’ve ever stayed at in all our years, though it did look out on a river and even had a single metal chair on its tiny balcony  — though not a single picture on the wall or any kind of decorative element which made me glad we paid a little extra for one of the “view” rooms because we slept with the sliding door open all night to the wind and the sound of a single train below us.

“Where on the map”

One book released to the world and another finding its way into my daily life, another novella, The Marriage of Rivers. I began it some time ago but put it aside because I had the work of editing Patrin and then I also wrote a long essay. I’m never sure why some work agitates its way to the front of the line but it does and other writing goes quiet. But on a fall morning, this morning in fact, I woke excited about this novella again and there it was, waiting. I’ve finished the first half. And I like where it’s going, in actual terms and in narrative terms. In actual terms, here’s a glimpse of the main character (who doesn’t have a name. I don’t know why that is but maybe she’ll find one…) in country I’m thinking of these days, with that kind of longing you feel as keenly as anything.

across the Fraser River


“Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before.”

I had the map I’d drawn for my thesis, rough but fairly accurate, and I was marking it with the places I’d identified in Hetty Dorval. I’d left my car at the Totem Motel and walked to the bridge. An osprey nest was unoccupied, though birds fished over both rivers, dipping and plunging. On the far side, the Lillooet side, a man was walking towards town with a dog beside him. I could hear the ospreys whistling as they fished, a surprisingly thin sound for such a big bird. There was such power in their wings which formed a kind of sail for the birds to ride the currents of air and watch for fish. Emissaries, beacons, gods of the sky. I wondered if they saw you, James, as you fell from your kayak and tried to fight the wild water, tumbling against rocks, your head thrust up, and up, their impersonal gaze casting over you as you drowned.

I made my mark on the map. Then I walked out the Lillooet Road, along its narrow shoulder, grass and pines above my shoulders, and everywhere the scent of southernwood, its blossoms just finishing. Dry air, a dry wind as I walked. Where was it Frankie Burnaby first met Hetty Dorval on the dusty highway, Frankie riding back from her home ranch in Lillooet to where she boarded during the week when she attended school in Lytton, and Hetty, recently arrived in Lytton from some mysterious past, out exploring on her mare. Ethel Wilson wrote of hairpin turns and the hills dotted with sage and it could have been anywhere along the road where the two met and witnessed the long arrow of migrating geese in the autumn sky. As I walked, I looked up, hoping for the same arrow. But saw only the blue vault and a few high clouds.

From a letter you wrote to me: Sometimes we head up to Keatley Creek to see what they’re doing. Man, what a place. Huge village – probably around 1500. When the creek meets the Fraser, the fishing would have been amazing. In a kind of funnel which would have dried the fish in no time. I love that place. And you can drive by and never know that it exists.

A I walked out the road, I thought how our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.