when fuchsia is a mnemonic


I was outside sweeping the deck so John could safely walk back and forth with his walker when I looked up to see the basket of fuchsia blooming so wildly, as though it hadn’t snowed this morning. I took the basket around to the woodshed and hung it under cover until I can figure out where to put it for the winter. My sunroom is filled to the brim with plants, the hooks supporting four baskets of epiphyllums. (The other morning when I was bringing up John’s breakfast and straightening the bed, he said, What can I ever do to thank you for these days? And I said one word: greenhouse….Done, he replied. So that will be a late winter project.)

Anyway, the fuchsias. I love to watch the hummingbirds deep in their throats all summer, love to water them on hot mornings and see tree frogs leaping from the basket. But today I was taken back, back, back to the west of Ireland and the walk from Eyrephort strand up to the Sky Road.  They were F. magellanica, the perennial or hedging fuchsias, and part of the road was a tunnel of them, right below the house where Peter O’Toole lived. When I came in from sweeping, I opened my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees to read the passage about that road again, taken back again in the reading more than 40 years (because Mnemonic was published in 2011 so I have to adjust the time in my mind):

A section of Irish hedgerow

I’d cross over from Inishturbot by curragh to Eyrephort Strand and then walk up to the Sky Road where I might get a ride to Clifden if I was lucky. If not, I walked the eleven kilometres. Sometimes I borrowed a bike from the farmer whose cows grazed in the fields that ended at the sea. Either way, the road that led up to the Sky Road was narrow, a leafy tunnel through fuchsia, hawthorn, branches of black sloes hanging heavy from their stems, brambles, and gorse blooming in almost every month. I never knew all the birds that sang, or didn’t, in the dense lattice of twigs and greenery but sometimes I’d see a nest with a blue tit hovering, or I’d hear the flute notes of a blackbird. Spiders, butterflies, bees humming in the primroses of early summer, and once I glimpsed a badger emerging from a gap where the hedge met a stone wall. Cattle beyond the hedgerow grazed in sour fields while soft rain slicked their hides.

     There weren’t many large trees. Plantings of pines and yew near the farmyard of the bachelor who gave me rides a few times and was handsome as sin but also rumoured to be dangerous. A few alders in the damp area where a seasonal stream came off the hills, the stunted willows by my bedroom window. I missed the dense forests of my native British Columbia raincoast during that year, though now I sometimes dream of walking up through that tunnel, fresh in spring or dust-worn in August, listening for birds, plucking a stem of fuchsia to tuck into my hat. Thirty-five years have passed, and still I remember white campion, dead-nettle, meadowsweet, and bryony lacing up into the sallies, and how I once dug up a small primrose to take back to my cottage where it bloomed in a blue teacup on the windowsill.

redux: it’s a long way from Clare to here

Note: This time last year I dreamed of Galway, and last night? Again. The soft iodine wind that came in the window by my bed in my cottage on Inishturbot. The wild fuchsia on the narrow roadsides. The music.

And is it courting bad luck to say that the Ukraine trip has been rebooked? Fingers crossed. All of them.


Does this happen to you? That you wake, knowing you dreamed of something deeply important, but you’ve forgotten what? How did you sleep, I asked John just before 7 and he replied, Not well; strange dreams. Given that he is experiencing a new health thing, I wasn’t surprised, but sort of sad, because sleep is the one time we can leave the daily worries and be transported. I knew I’d dreamed of something unsettling too but couldn’t remember just what.

Putting laundry into the washing machine, I found myself singing softly and I realized it was this song:

And then I remembered my dream. John and I were somewhere, don’t know where, and two guys were also there, obviously bored. Never mind, one of them said, we’ll just drive on to Galway. I was pierced, in the dream, and now, that someone could simply drive to Galway, a city I love and have spent a little time exploring. It was the nearest city to me when I lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland and sometimes I got to tag along with someone going there with fish or on other business. Later, in Ireland with my son Forrest in 2001 so I could research Irish history and revisit some special landscapes while I was writing A Man in a Distant Field, Forrest and I spent three nights in Galway. He was just finishing an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Toronto and he’d taken a course in Irish history and was full of information I’d never known. But I knew places and plants and another kind of history so I think we were a good pair that spring. We were blessed with weather. I think it rained the day we arrived in Dublin and it might have rained another day but mostly it was warm and sunny, ideal for following the Ordnance Survey Map I’d ordered from Kennys, a book store and art gallery in Galway, before flying to Ireland. I wrote about that trip in an essay, “Well”, in Phantom Limb, how we used the map to find (or not) sacred sites:

We didn’t see St. Patrick’s Well off the Maam Valley road, nor his bed a little further on. We drove as far as the path to that Well but then it led through a farm yard and the sign told us Do Not Enter. Later in our trip, we ignored the signs and ventured into Hoare Abbey, a field of beehive huts on the Dingle Peninsula, a grove on ogham stones on a private drive, but we hadn’t yet found the courage to climb the gate, and walk up the path, smoothed by centuries of travellers and believers.

near dingle

Forrest found a small map in Galway that took an interested person, or two of them, on a walking tour of medieval sites, many of them hidden in plain view. You looked up and saw a gargoyle, an oriel window, the hall of the Red Earl. We walked, parsing the streets in their layers of occupancy. Streets I’d walked and never thought to look up.

We went to places I’d been but had never known to look at with an historian’s eye. At Sellerna, this megalithic tomb:

at sellerna

The Kilmalkedar church on the Dingle Peninsula:


In my dream, this was all somehow in the atmosphere, that a person could simply go to Galway, or by extension, Ireland. But that person wasn’t me. I know I am mourning in a mild way the loss of our trip to Ukraine and London in September, wondering (perhaps) if we will be be able to plan such things again. Things happen. One day you are healthy and vigorous and another day you aren’t. And a song helps, or doesn’t. It’s a long long way from Clare to here, from Galway to here, from the village in Bukovina my grandfather left in 1907, maybe for good reason, maybe not. It’s part of a project I’m working on, a series of essays that might become a book. I didn’t think Ireland was part of it but, well, are dreams instructive? Was I being told to pay attention to where the heart longed towards?

We had to stop while John Smith drove his cattle to their evening pasture, him still in the black wellingtons with a familiar dog at the heels of the last wild-eyed heifer. He waved to us as though to anyone and for a moment I thought to call to him, asking him…but what? Where have the years gone, John Smith, that you are still with the cattle and I am driving with a son the age I was when I lived on the island we’ll see when we park the car and take our picnic to the sand.


Was I being told to at least look at old photographs and remember that ramble through narrow roads so overhung with fuchsias and hawthornes that we kept having to pluck blossoms from our clothing when we got into the car, or out of it.

I sometimes hear a fiddle play or maybe it’s a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It’s a long, long way, it gets further by the day
It’s a long way from Clare to here

Cattle, swimming

When I lived on Inishturbot in the 1970s, I saw cattle swimming to the mainland so they could be taken to Clifden to the cattle fair. It was always very dramatic — men on the shore urging the animals into the water and a black currach pulling them across to the mainland, someone in the currach holding the rope that was attached to the halters. Dogs were involved, and children. And somehow, this morning, I found this short film online and was transported back to that island. Here, the cattle swim from the mainland — I think it’s Eyrephort Strand — to Inishturbot, probably for the summer grazing. No one lives permanently on the Island any longer but the small fields still exist and it would be paradise to spent a few months there, among the soft grass and fuschias, if you were a cow, and maybe even if you were, like me then, a young girl hoping to be a poet.