in cloud-light (with thanks to Les Murray)

gooseberries

Overcast, cloudy, a good day to pick gooseberries (as John did), and then to sit in the cool kitchen to top and tail enough for jam, for a fool. (Every pun intended.) To pick broad beans and to sit (as I did) to shell them and inhale that earthy odour. Those, with a head of garlic and some kale, will be dinner tonight, with a small steak on the barbecue, and maybe even the first tomatoes, 3 Black Plums, that have ripened on the upper deck. These are the days. They go on for months, vegetables ripening, berries ready to pick, the failures forgotten as you reach into the bean plants to find yet another big pod filled with silken beans.

…beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover

till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or
do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions,

like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string
and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,
the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers …

—from “The Broad Bean Sermon”, by Les Murray

kale and garlic

“looking for the best views”

All night rain fell steadily, the sound of it on our metal roof so welcome after the weeks and weeks of drought. There was sporadic rain here and there – a brief shower or two in May, one in June, a short period last week — but never anything sustained. So to lie awake in the night and hear it, after a day of it yesterday, is to imagine the trees drinking deeply, the big pails at the down-spouts filling, the beans (oh, the beans) outgrowing their poles and reaching for the sky.

I was up in the night, working on this essay-in-progress I’m calling “Ballast”. Fittingly, I sent Forrest and Manon off to Ottawa the other day with a little wrapped length of horseradish root for their garden (and of course I’d shown them the tomatillo plants I’d brought home from their garden in May, tiny little volunteers perhaps an inch long which I’d dug and wrapped in damp paper towel, placing each one in a pot almost immediately after arriving home; they’re now 7 feet tall and laden with fruit). And when Angie and Sahand left yesterday morning, they packed a pot of small kale plants, another of arugula, and another of mint, mint from John’s mother’s garden, into their car. They have a balcony garden in Victoria and now know that it’s fatal to mention that they might like some salad greens for it…Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly managed to get away without any roots or greens but their time will come.

Part of the research I’ve been doing for this essay revolves around the plants emigrants brought to the New World. I’m growing “Black Krim” tomatoes , originally from the Crimea, and every time I eat one, I wonder if my grandfather’s family in Bukovina grew tomatoes. I know they grew potatoes. Potatoes were central to their diet and among the tiny hoard of stories I have about my grandparents, there is one I particularly treasure. My grandmother was pregnant with my father and it was October, in Drumheller. My grandparents were digging the last of their potatoes when my grandmother went into labour. (My father was the tenth child she gave birth to.) “Aren’t you going to finish your row?” asked my grandfather. I wish had some small remnant of those original potatoes for our own soil here.

And tomatillos – well, they originated in pre-Columbian Mexico. I love them. In winter we often have a simple supper of eggs poached in green salsa which we eat with homemade corn tortillas cooked on an ancient cast iron griddle I was given many years ago by an elderly woman who had no children herself and liked it that John and I (in her words) “knew what to do with our hands”. (She was impressed we’d built our own house.) I was very surprised to see how many tiny tomatillo volunteers sprouting in an Ottawa garden after the long cold winter but plants, like people, find ways to adapt to new places.

Forrest was able to get me a copy of an article I’d come across a reference to and which I thought would be useful for this essay. The article, by John Murray Gibbon, was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada in 1923, and is entitled “European Seeds in the Canadian Garden”. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered it was about literary seeds, not botanical ones. And the literary references are pretty dull. But there are moments when I realize the trajectories of stories, gardens, and memory are more similar than I expected and the article prompted one of those moments:

The peach tree carried into Northern India by Chinese settlers and introduced into Greece by Alexander the Great, now blooms in many an orchard in the Niagara Peninsula. So the seeds of literature share in human migrations from the Old World to the New, and where they find congenial circumstances and proper cultivation, there they flourish.

Yesterday morning, before Angie and Sahand left, I saw John sitting with them and showing Sahand an album of photographs of our early years here, prompted by questions about how we came to build our house. I was in and out of the living room but loved hearing the stories again – how we came with a tiny baby (Forrest) and lived in a tent on weekends, in all weathers, mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow for the footings, using water in a clear hose as part of our method of finding level, deciding where windows would go by walking the framed platforms and looking for the best views.

So now to try to wrangle all this into an essay, a few new lines added to the old stories and the seeds of those tomatillos enriching our compost for future gardens, winter dinners.

nailing the floor

 

shoots and leaves

I’m getting used to the silly camera function of my tablet. In a couple of days, John and I are going to Europe for five weeks and although John will be taking his camera, I don’t see any way of uploading photographs from it to the tablet (which I’ll be using for email and adding posts to this blog). So I’m learning that my hands are not very steady and the images I’ve taken so far have been very blurry. But I can’t resist posting this one — a big colander filled with just-cut shoots and leaves of kale for tonight’s pasta. Last week the kale was pretty much picked clean. But the past few days have been so warm and mild that it’s sprouting away. The greens so dark, the purples so vivid! I’ll add it to the pasta pot for the last five minutes and then stir in some of my frozen stash of summer pesto, hoarded for occasions like this — one of the last dinners at home for some time. We’ll eat shoots and leaves. We’ll shoot the leaves. How would you punctuate it?

kale

gratitude

We had Thanksgiving dinner last night with friends — a delicious and lively meal with interesting people. On the way home, the highway was hopping with frogs, out leaping for the pleasure of rain, their red legs aglow in the headlights. It was pouring and it continues to rain. I’m so glad that the stressed cedars and Douglas firs can drink from the sky and their roots. And glad that the frogs are singing for the joy of it.

It’s good to have a warm house, a woodshed full (or about to be) of dry wood, pantry shelves heavy with preserves. To have health, a beloved husband, and children out in the world with their own loves and interests. As much as I miss them, I am grateful they have their independent lives, ones that intersect with my own, enrich it.

Tonight we’ll eat soup with a Portuguese accent — smoky paprika, spicy chourico, chick peas, kale, lovely yellow potatoes, and a splash of wine. To drink? Farm fresh beer, Rum Runner ale, from Persephone, the new craft brewery down the coast. All summer, on our way to and from the ferry, we’d see the hops growing on the high supports. We’ve stopped in once or twice for an excellent pizza baked in an outdoor wood-burning oven and enjoyed a glass of Irish stout or the grapefruit-tangy summer Double IPA. The other day we had our growlette filled with the Rum Runner after a glass of it with a leek, potato, and bacon pizza. And that made me think of this meal, made in part to welcome home (via email) Forrest and Manon who’ve been in Portugal and Spain for three weeks and who would love both the soup and the beer.

fall soup

morning

I went out to begin the watering but found myself admiring the abundance of a summer garden. It’s not long ago that I showed you the hopeful beds of March, with their painted signs and tiny sprouts of garlic (which is all harvested and hanging in the woodshed to cure), a little clump of chives, the first crocus — and a lot of bare soil. We’ve had runs of hot weather followed by days of heavy rain and other than producing slugs the size of the late dinosaurs, the results have been pretty fine.

life in the (bee-loud) forest

When I taught writing classes many years ago, I used Denise Levertov’s poem “Life in the Forest” as an object lesson in the use of commas. It was a poem I loved —

The woman whose hut was mumbled by termites

–it would have to go,

be gone,

not soon, but some day:

she knew it and shrugged —

had friends among the feathers,

quick hearts.

I’ve just been out logging the kale forest, last year’s “trees”.  The garden needs the room for squash and other things, not the least of which is this year’s kale. But when I reached for the thick trunks, all I could hear was bees. The yellow blossoms were alive with them. I carefully pulled up the plants and set them by the compost so the bees could continue to do their work. The industrious bees barely noticed I was there.

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The volunteers I transplanted last month have come along nicely

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and we’ll barely notice last year’s plants have gone — though the bees will have to find other flowers to sustain them. Luckily the vegetable garden is filled with roses and campanula:

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I have three small pots of black Tuscan kale to plant out now, the kind with lovely pebbled leaves and an earthy flavour. I look forward to eating a cultivar I know the name of. What I currently have is mongrel — red Russian, Portuguese, Siberian, and collards have all been cross-pollinated by those bees (or their grandparents) and the offspring grow to such healthy heights that I have a hard time uprooting them to let their own children have a turn. Some resemble the parents. Some are deeply lobed, some ruffled, some streaked with purple, some as grey-green as winter rain.

That poem I taught for its punctuation speaks to me in a different way now, with an urgency I wouldn’t have understood 30 years ago.

The trees

began to come in of themselves, evenings.

The termites labored.

The hut’s green moss of shadows

gave harbor

to those who sheltered her.

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green pie

To keep up with the kale — which is last year’s planting and it’s wanting to bolt but this year’s seedlings aren’t quite big enough to begin cutting — I’ve been making green pie. Two big ones today, one to eat over the next few days and another for the freezer. Tomorrow I’ll make a couple more. When our plane landed in Vancouver last Tuesday, after 12 days in New Mexico and five in Edmonton, I thought how beautiful and lush everything was. Grass, trees, even sea itself as we drove home up the coast highway. And when we got to our place, it was the kale I saw first of all. I thought of the lines from the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits Phaiakia (and I think they are even better in the Fagles translation than the Fitzgerald which is the one I usually consult, mostly because it was the one my wonderful Classics professor Peter Smith taught to us in 1974):

And there by the last rows are beds of greens, 

bordered and plotted, greens of every kind, 

glistening fresh, year in, year out.”. (Book Seven, 129-31)

So kale and dandelion greens and blood-red sorrel, picked while still glistening with morning damp.

P1100056And they steamed down to this:

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I mixed them with chives, mint, and last year’s (frozen) dill, eggs, some delicious fresh feta, and arranged the greens over the filo, bringing out the Greek olive oil which had languished in a dark cupboard and looked like it should spend a little time outside first, reclining on the rosemary:

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And now the green pie is cooling on the worktable while we enjoy a glass of wine outside, in sunlight, with a few mezes — beet and toasted walnut spread on little rice crackers, some peas, a hummus made with roasted carrots and chickpeas.

P1100068After one of the wonderful extended catalogues for which the Odyssey is justly famous, listing those rows of greesn, figs, apples, and every other kind of fruit, the vines which would yield wine, all watered from a clear fountain, Homer ends the passage by saying, “These were the gifts of Heaven.” Who can argue?