Cougar companions


I was late coming to Cougar Companions: Bute Inlet Country and the Legendary Schnarrs, by Judith Williams, published as Raincoast Chronicles 24 by Harbour Publishing last spring. I knew about the Schnarrs, a homesteading family, with daughters who kept cougars as pets in the 1930s. And when we spent a day on Nelson Island in July, courtesy of our friend Howard White (who, with his wife Mary, founded Harbour Publishing in the last century), we talked about the book while sitting at Cape Cockburn, caught in one of those curves of time, the old cabin built by Harry Roberts behind us as we ate our lunch on the pebbled beach.


I remember saying how much I’d admired Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time, Judith Williams’s extraordinary documentation of Dzawada’enuxw artist Marianne Nicholson’s creation of a pictograph to acknowledge her village’s continuing strength at Kingcome Inlet as well as a meditation on the colonial legacy in the form of the Halliday homestead in the same area. I remember how we agreed that it was complicated to want to demonize all those homesteaders, one of whom had built the cabin we’d just explored. Complicated is the word I remember.

Friends came for dinner a few weeks ago and brought a bag of books as a gift. One of them was Cougar Companions. I’ve spent the last few nights enthralled, propped on 4 pillows, reading by the small light of my reading lamp.

On a winter day in 1934, August Schnarr, a handlogger, trapper, and homesteader, shot a cougar his dogs had treed on Sonora Island. When he began to skin it, he realized that it had recently given birth and had been nursing young. He found the den and brought home 4 tiny kits, their eyes not yet open, for his daughters to care for. He was a widower, charged with the responsibility of raising 3 young girls, aged 12, 10, and 7. Two of the kits died quite soon after but the other two, Leo and Cleo (soon to be called Girlie), grew to maturity. I was fascinated by the photographs of Pansy, Pearl, and Marion with their cougars. The cats only cared for them and could be menacing to others. With the girls, they were affectionate and reasonably biddable.

Judith Williams studies albums of photographs (August Schnarr was a avid photographer), store records, a journal kept by Pansy in 1934, and a miscellany of archival materials to piece together the lives of this family. But she does it not exactly as a historian. She is interested in how different “readings” of the material record and indeed the memories of those who knew the girls and their lives might result in different histories. “Conflicting stories can send me running in circles,” she admits. “Memory is not a science. A “reading” is not necessarily conventional history.” She also looks at, and for, the complicated (that word again) history of Bute Inlet, an 80 km. fjord with its origins at the head of the Homathko and Southgate Rivers, emptying into the ocean by Stuart Island. It’s a place Williams has explored by boat and she also wrote High Slack: Waddington’s Gold Road and the Bute Inlet Massacre of 1864, a book worth reading for its excellent balancing of oral and written histories of what became known as the Tsilhqot’in War.

The Schnarrs lived a hard life. The girls lost their mother the year before the cougar kits came and they did the work of men. They logged, they built and maintained boats, they set log rafts under their house so it could be moved up to their father’s Bute Inlet camp in summers, they preserved food for the coming year, smoking fish and meat, canning quarts and quarts of berries and other fruits, growing acres of vegetables, raising and killing pigs, and they tried to avoid the attentions of the old men who were always eager to pursue them. It seems Marion was not as lucky as the other girls and gave birth at least once in her adolescence.

This is book-as-memory-theatre. The backdrops, real and imagined, are constructed of old floathouses, dugout canoes, pictograph galleries in remote areas on the inlet, deep forests, abandoned camps. The soundtrack: wind, turbulent water, the keening of seabirds, a father’s voice shouting the orders his daughters knew they had to obey: “You jumped when he spoke and did it. You didn’t talk back. You’d get a backhander if you did. He had to be that way to survive. He was a gruff person.” Each daughter had a slightly different version of their lives.

What captured me most in the book are the photographs of the young girls with the cougars. The images were familiar somehow. The strength of the girls, the beauty of their companions. And yes, we’ve seen these pairings before. I think of some of the early images of Artemis, goddess of hunting, wild nature, young animals. The ravishing François Vase, a black-figure vessel dating from around 570 BCE, has several depictions of Artemis, one of her standing with a lioness and a stag. Look at her arms, her strength,


her steady gaze. There is something of this in the Schnarr sisters.


So yes, I was late coming to this book but I’ll never forget it. Last night I dreamed of a cougar on its chain and a fierce young woman guiding it. In the Homeric Hymn to Artemis, the rhapsode sings:

The tops of the high mountains tremble and the tangled wood echoes awesomely with the outcry of beasts: earth quakes and the sea also where fishes shoal.

It’s complicated, yes, but so important to how we continue to read and understand the multiple histories of this place.




“In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..”

the point

Yesterday John came back from the mailbox with a package: a book by a Ukrainian poet, Oleh Lysheha. He’d ordered it without knowing anything about the poet but wanted to read poetry rooted in the country we are about to visit next week. He opened the book at random and read a poem aloud. It was “Father” and it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Here’s the opening:

Oh, he liked to bathe..
Best in late summer,
In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..
—Once, there was a deeper place here—
He entered patiently, his turn of wrist,
The elbow high, slipping the hand into the water and out,
As if still dry—in the manner no one sees anymore—
Swimming to a shallow place:
—Would you wash my back?

Almost every day we swim, early, in the lake nearby, and we’ve noted that we can tell it’s late in the season by the later rising of the sun over the mountain to the east of the lake. I wouldn’t have thought to call it “mature” but that’s a perfect adjective for the sun at the end of August.

Reading on, to himself, he kept saying, There are poems for animals and birds! Fish! John’s own new book arrived earlier in the week, This Was the River, with a cover detail from Tintoretto’s painting “The Creation of the Animals”, chosen because a sequence of poems named for the painting is at the heart of the book.

john's river

I’ve been looking into Oleh Lysheha’s poems (translated by the poet and James Brasfield) and find in them something rich and mysterious, anchored in the earth, but also filled with divinity. A horse dreaming of escape to the mountains, an old dog in the woods, “His skull a cobweb of veins” (the poet imploring, “Young nettle, be kind to him—listen—/His heart can’t endure any more the arc of your leaves..”).

I have been trying to learn a few phrases in Ukrainian but wish now I had time to commit one or two of these poems to memory. That father, in the Crow River, “He walked out like a blind man/and fell face down into grass, in sunlight..” and the horse who remembers,

…the day
A man outlined
In red on the cave wall
Shadows of my friends
Coming down slowly,
One by one, to water flowing
From a subterranean river..

“…a secret cove with an old house”

This is an old west where a secret cove with an old house
is called history, a raven cackling on a limb, mythology.


sunday cabin

Our friend wondered if we’d like to go by boat to Nelson Island on Sunday to visit Harry Roberts’ old cabin at Cape Cockburn. Well, yes! It was clear and blue and on the way we stopped at Quarry Bay where the granite for the Legislative buildings in Victoria was quarried. You could see the old workings hidden now by trees. What you could not imagine was how someone had found that beautiful granite a hundred years ago or more, knew how straight it would split, and then figured out how to get it to Victoria in quantities sufficient to build huge structures. You also thought of nearby Hardy Island where the granite for the Ogden Point breakwater came from and how you’ve looked closely at the workmen’s marks visible on some of the blocks, marks made more than a century ago.

In this tumbledown house,
thought and wind move alike.

The cabin sits on its south-facing rise above a small pebbled cove. Our friend, an ideal guide because he spent part of his childhood on Nelson Island and a good portion of the rest of his life thus far researching, publishing, and commemorating the history of B.C. in general and our coast in particular, told us Harry’s colourful story and showed us the cabin’s interior, the summer kitchen, the sturdy steps leading to a bedroom I found myself dreaming a whole life within, and then we walked among the old fruit trees, eating Transparents and talking. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were not alone, that if I just listened carefully enough, I would hear someone cooking, a hoe in the stone-rimmed garden, the clatter of shells as someone opened oysters for dinner.

cabin interior

So now it’s a Tuesday morning and I’m sitting at my desk, remembering how it felt to walk into what the cabin still held of the past, its open spaces lonely for children, for the scent of woodsmoke, for someone reading poetry aloud by the fire. I could live here, I said, and in a way it’s true. Picking apples for a pie, making sure the lamps were trimmed, the water pump primed. When we sat on the beach and when we swam in the cold clean water, a seal kept watch, its head glossy in sunlight. What did it know of who left and who returned?

House: blue mountains, rain, surf stumbling on the reef.
House of live, house of childhood,
a shake and log shamble, windworn and storm white;
its desires and regrets a matter of moments
half-seen through another life. Even so
love was enormous in this secrecy.
The stars sang in the twilit garden;
morning was moonlight,
raspberries, wine clear as the wind and cold.


Note: the passages of poetry are taken from “Closing Down Kah Shakes Creek” by the late Charles Lillard (another dear friend), published in Shadow Weather (Sono Nis Press, 1996)

“I am haunted by waters.”


“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.

“…clay I felt my father fumble”

I was just sorting some photographs taken a month ago, in Ottawa. There was a moment in late afternoon, in Forrest and Manon’s back garden, when I was sitting on their deck and looked over to see my sons holding their babies above them.

their babies.jpg

And looking at the photograph a few minutes ago, I heard so clearly a few lines from one of John’s poems, in which he meditates briefly on fatherhood in the larger context of house-building.

                       …the deck
I built in a blur but sit on

with a view — definite trees– an acreage
to be landscaped — orchard to complement
woodlot. I’ll work it for years. For my sons

I’ve apprehensions, don’t care
for legacy, paternal imposition, clay
I felt my father fumble handling me.

But I build, deep-bearing
in fluid bonds gone concrete
a southwest exposure.
I live in it for love…

                          —John Pass, “Days in the Dark of Building”, from Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

It’s always been one of my favourite poems, one I’ve heard at public readings many times but without the sense that one day it would mean something more. That the sons would hold their own children — a son, a daughter — aloft with their strong hands. Tomorrow is Fathers Day. The sons are far away, the father will be celebrated with barbequed steak and good red wine, and the concrete still supports the house we live in for love, after all these years.


Autumn, publishing season. John’s new book arrived the other day. Forecast:Selected Early Poems (1970-1990), published by Harbour Publishing. It gathers together the work he published in chapbooks and small books now out of print. Harbour did a lovely job of production. When Anna Comfort O’Keefe was designing the cover, she and John exchanged ideas, various images, and came up with something I think is really interesting. (I took this photograph in the sunroom with today’s sunlight dappling the book.)


The front cover shows a window opening, newly-framed. Looking out, you see trees (the trees out our windows), a full moon that provides the “O” in the book’s title. And the back cover shows the same window opening several decades later but you’re looking in, the trees reflected in the old glass. That’s our blue window, the one in our dining area. And the book’s trajectory covers a similar span of years.

I know these poems so well. There are some from books published before I met John in 1979 and in fact I’d read some of them before I knew him. “The Crossing” is one of my favourites, from Port of Entry. Its preoccupations — place, how we find ourselves a place and how we write into it and out of it — forecast much of our life together.  Here are the final lines:

not until arrival does the journey

focus. but that is late and looking

back distorts the purpose

we cannot hold our coming through the world

Continue reading “Forecast”