I came downstairs by the (almost) sturgeon moon

In two days the moon will be full, the sturgeon moon. We haven’t seen anything of the sky for nearly two weeks because of wildfire smoke. The whole province (and Alberta, too, I think) was hazy with it. On Wednesday we drove as far as Roberts Creek on errands and I don’t think I’ve ever seen or smelled more smoke in our part of the world. But this morning, no, yesterday morning (because it’s going on 3:00 a.m. as I sit at my desk, restless) we woke to clear air, a breeze, and when we swam, it was the lake I smelled, clean and cool. When I came downstairs half an hour ago, the stairs were bright with  moonlight. Looking out the window at the top of the stairs, I saw Ursa Major stretched above the printshop and it made me wonder if the bears will come for the crabapples on one of these late August nights. And passing through the living room, I saw the moon in the southern sky briefly through a particular lens, one of the orbs on the hanging window that June Malaka made, and for a moment it was like the eerie sun we’ve been seeing first thing, dark orange in its haze of particulate. But beautiful now because it was red glass that was giving it its colour.

june's glass
this is the glass in daylight

It is good to have clear air again. The last couple of days have been so hot and smokey and when I read this article in The Narwhal yesterday, I encountered the word “solastalgia” with a kind of deep familiarity, though it was the first time I ever read it. It was coined by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher, about 15 years ago, a portmanteau word containing “solace” and “nostalgia” and it means, more or less, the feelings of distress associated with environmental change close to home. A homesickness for what you’ve always known and loved as it changes or is adversely affected by climate change.

When I was a child, I remember my father taking me—or us? Were my brothers also with me?—to a quiet eddy of the Fraser River near Matsqui where a man had just brought in a sturgeon while fishing on the banks. Others were gathered there to witness the fish. Am I imagining it or did some of them poke it with their feet? There was reverence but also bravado, particularly on the part of the victor. The white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, is a beautiful fish, with barbels on the snout, and they can live to be something like 150 years old. They have survived two ice-ages but their populations are under threat from the usual array of anthropogenic changes to their habitat such over-fishing, degradation of the fresh water and estuaries important to their life cycle. Certain populations (the Nechako for example) are considered “critically imperiled”. I read of a famous sturgeon near Lillooet called Pig Nose (named for an injury to his snout) who’s been caught repeatedly and released and this is always a big moment for the fisher who hooks him. Pig Nose is more than 10 feet long. Lots of photographs and some microchipping before he’s allowed to swim free. And this is considered somehow “conservation” — to participate in the “sport” of tormenting a huge fish, of fighting it with a rod and line, before letting it go. It’s an aspect of humanity I don’t understand.

So in two days, the sturgeon moon. More swims in the cool morning. The fires still rage. There’s no real rain in the forecast. This time next week I’ll be in Ottawa, holding my new grandson (finally) and reading to his brother. My solastalgia is for the whole planet and all its inhabitants, those in far cities and those in rivers. Those haunting the moonlit woods, hungry for apples, and that little girl on the banks of the Fraser, with her father, still in his 30s, never imagining she would never see one of those fish again in her life.

the world comes in


This morning I’ve been working on the edits for my forthcoming book, Euclid’s Orchard. I have the most perceptive editor in Pearl Luke and her notes challenge me to go a little deeper, to clarify, to find the best words. My eyes are a bit strained by the effort of looking at the screen, contemplating commas. But just now I walked out of my study and saw the glass piece we gave to each other for Christmas, made by our friend June Malaka. It’s hanging in a south-facing window and all winter I loved how the light came through the orbs of different glass. Winter light, sombre and diffuse. But today, there’s spring light and a budding lilac behind it.

The world comes in. It comes to a woman sitting at her desk, it finds its way into her writing, her heart. It reminds her of everything she’s looked at and remembered.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad, dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.

–from “Euclid’s Orchard”, title essay of forthcoming book.

“Was that a wren?”

Most mornings, a winter wren comes to my study window. It creeps along the cedar trim around the window, searching for insects. It darts in and out of this little birdhouse.


No bird has ever nested in this house but in winter, the wrens (and if you’re a twitcher wondering why I’m calling them winter wrens instead of Pacific wrens, I know they’ve been reclassified but old habits die hard. And the wrens don’t care what we call them. They know who they are…), anyway (to pull this sentence back into some form of grammatical coherence), the wrens take refuge from the cold inside its small confines. Once I was at my desk at twilight and saw 6 of them enter, all of them coming from different directions. When we see them or hear them on our walks, or hunting our woodpile for insects, we usually see just one. If there are two, they aren’t companions but rivals. That’s what the song is about. Or at least that’s my best guess.

The wren moves through my novella named for it (Winter Wren) the way these birds move through our woods. You see them, you don’t; you hear them, then there is silence.

The sun was beginning to set. Tom slumped in his chair, his eyes filled with the sky. He had watched the sun for more than fifty years, watched weather of every temper over seasons too many to count. Was that a wren? Yes, and another there, just by the path. Like mice, they darted and scurried in the bush. One hopped onto the vertebra and there it was, the long song, loud and true. It looked right at him, eyes bright as glass. He wanted to say something to it but nothing came, his voice wasn’t there. Passage of song, the bright eyes. He felt drool on his chin and tried to wipe it with his wrist but his hands were too cold. Grace called out was he alright and with supreme effort, he waved his arm, Yes, yes.

This morning the wren is hunting. The sky is grey, there’s snow on the ground, and winter is truly approaching. 10 days until the Solstice, the time of year the wren comes into its own. Wren ceremonies are rich and various. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the hunting of the wren takes place on the feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day. There are also rituals associated with the wren on the day before the Solstice — December 21 — when a wren is hunted and killed to represent the death of the old King or Sun and the birth (or return) of the New. The wren appears in various west coast Indigenous belief systems as a transformer (the old sun, the new?) and an emblem of great strength.

Today I’ll make the white chocolate fruitcakes we love, rich with dried Montmorency cherries, dried mango, Calimyrna figs, and hazelnuts, and I’ll watch for wrens. We have a beautiful piece of glass, made by our friend June Malaka, hanging in our big south-facing window, and the world through it swirls and tilts. Anything could happen. Anything might.



The provenance of things

This morning I woke early with a feeling of horror. What? What? And then I remembered. Yesterday was our provincial election and contrary to every pollster and general opinion, the promised NDP (majority) win didn’t materialize. Instead, the Liberal party — but not a party like the federal Liberals; this lot is really a coalition of so-called free-enterprisers from the old Social Credit party as well as homeless Conservatives and yes, a few true Liberals — won a big majority, in part by running a very negative and aggressive campaign.

I’ve voted NDP all my adult life. Most of the reasons still feel right. NDP stands for New Democratic Party and in Canada the party occupies the political Left, though it has become increasingly moderate over the years. We have the old CCF Party — the NDP’s parent, under the leadership of a true visionary, Tommy Douglas — to thank for our universal health care in Canada. We have the NDP to thank (and to encourage) for its stance on human rights, agrarian reform (I first became a supporter when I was still too young to vote but attended a meeting at Sancha Hall in Sidney, B.C. in 1972 and heard Dave Stupich outline his vision for the protection of agricultural property in B.C. against increasing urbanization and development of fertile land), trying to increase minimum wage to keep pace with the true cost of living, and increasing the corporate tax rate. The NDP’s focus on workers’ rights, social assistance to those who require it, foreign policy based more on humanitarian aid and peace-keeping than military intervention, made sense to me then and it still makes sense.

So my province feels like a strange place to me this morning. The majority of people want something different than I do, it seems — though at least our riding returned our excellent NDP MLA, Nicholas Simons. And I fear for not just the disadvantaged — our child poverty rates are a disgrace to us as citizens in a wealthy culture — but also for the environment as Premier Christy Clark ran on a platform which was evasive on the proposed increase to oil tanker traffic on the part of Enbridge and Kinder-Morgan and her corporate supporters are not exactly green. Though, speaking of green, acclaimed climate scientist Andrew Weaver was elected last night as the first Green Party member to the Legislative Assembly which is positive. Though there’s only one of him and many more who don’t share his strong advocacy for our planet.

But before the news coverage of the election results came on the television, I watched some of the Antiques Roadshow program which preceeded the news. There were some fascinating objects — a huge Acoma water jar in beautiful condition, a Georgian filligree and amethyst necklace, an unpublished (and signed) preface written by Albert Einstein for a book written by a participant’s grandfather, and three prints given to a couple by Sol LeWitt. Of course the appraisals of the pieces were interesting in themselves, what I found more intriguing were the stories told by the owners of the items. Sometimes the stories, lovingly told, didn’t match the actual provenance of the objects. A big green etched glass bowl, thought by its owner to have come from China, was in fact a piece of art glass made by Steuben in Corning, New York.

While I was watching, I looked around our living room at the bowls and pictures, and I thought of other things we own (and love) which have come to us over the years in strange and often wonderful ways. The Minton bowl I found at the thrift shop in Sechelt last summer and wrote about here, for example: https://theresakishkan.com/2012/07/26/bowl-of-light/ The Sheffield silver plate coffee pot given to John’s parents as a wedding gift in 1947:

sheffield plate coffee pot

This little plate, brought by a house guest from Turkey, and made by an old potter she said lived in a village enroute from Istanbul, where Maya’s family lived, to the Bosphorus, where they had a summer home. She said she always bought a little piece from the potter on her journey to the Bosphorus, which sounded so exotic to me:

maya's dish

And to take these photographs, I had to turn on the dining room light, which we asked our artist friend June Malaka to make for us in 1989 as a gift to ourselves for our 10th wedding anniversary. Colours, she asked? Design? Something beautiful, we said, with daffodils and Siberian iris, and this is what she made:

june's lamp

So maybe it’s time for a book of household items, each with its story, and a photograph. Not to publish but to pass on to my children. So often the value of something is in its story and how easily those are lost, forgotten. So that a bowl that sat unwashed on a shelf in a thrift shop or a coffee pot with a monogram — did John’s mother friend, who gave the gift, find the pot in an antiques shop with the monogram already engraved or did she arrange for it before the wedding of John’s parents? — enter our lives only partially told, partially complete. I have a small book on Sheffield plate, given me by John’s mother, so obviously she was trying to complete the story of the pot too. And while there are images in the book which are similar to her (our) silver pot, nothing is exactly it.

I bought this book last summer and put it away in a drawer, waiting for the right occasion. It’s from India, from a fair-trade workshop, and its pages are lovely handmade cotton paper, strewn with flowers. A book for the provenance of things. And maybe this morning, the awful memory of how the electorate in my province chose to vote still raw and fresh, is a good time to begin.

the book of the provenance of things