the vancouvers*

Old and new, the view from my hotel this morning.



On the left, corner of Homer and Pender, Finch’s. The best sandwiches ever.  Down the street, bookstores, a place (Button, Button, on Homer) to buy shell buttons in bulk, and where I am now, sitting by a bay window, looking out at misted streets? The wonderful Victorian Hotel, built as a rooming house in 1898, now a very comfortable and reasonable hotel, with good beds, a generous breakfast (French pastries, baguette, fruit, yoghourt…), and walking distance to theatres, restaurants, old streets, and those sandwiches.

*I mean by this that there are many Vancouvers and in parts of the city, one can apprehend the layers—the cobbled streets, the old buildings, remnants of signs remembered from childhood trips to the city (Woodwards Department Store Ltd), Victory Square, the copies of poetry books from the 1970s on the shelves of MacLeod’s Books (along with what must be one of the oldest carpets in the city), the markets of Chinatown with ducks hanging from hooks and bins of dried mushrooms. This morning, looking out, I saw many of the layers, and sort of mourned for the old city.



distilʹ, v.i. & t. (-ll-). Trickle down; come or give forth in drops, exude; turn to vapour by heat, condense by cold, & recollect (liquid); extract essence of (plant etc., or fig. Doctrine etc.); drive (volatile constituent) off or out by heat; make (whisky, essence) by distillation; undergo distillation. So ̴ lAʹTION n., ̴ lʹatORY a. [ME, f. OF distiller, L DI1(stillare drop)

I use my dictionary all the time, my 1964 fifth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I bought it to celebrate my new vocation as a university student in the fall of 1973. Maybe even the last day of August (though I know of course that there are still three weeks of summer left), as I nervously checked my textbook lists, my binders, the tires of my bicycle (for I cycled to the University of Victoria from Royal Oak in those days, up Quadra to McKenzie and along McKenzie to the campus). There were still a few places on McKenzie where I could stop to visit with horses in those years. Hard to believe now.

So this morning, looking at the pantry shelves, at the preserving I did this weekend, I thought of the word “distil”. Yesterday 4 pounds of tomatillos were distilled into 6 jars of salsa verde. That pile of tomatillos, the onions peeled and quartered, the pile of cilantro, the elegant long peppers from the planter on the upper deck, and a handful of fierce little peppers from my friend June — the heaps of vegetables reduced to a few jars of salsa. But what salsa! It tastes delicious and when I open a jar in winter, when I poach eggs (duck eggs if I’m lucky) in it and savour each aromatic mouthful on a corn tortilla, I’ll remember the paradox of the plenty cooked down into essence.

That was the second batch of salsa verde. And there are many jars of pickled beans, another distillation: tender beans, fresh dill snipped from its pot, garlic from the ropes of it still hanging in the woodshed, some salt, some vinegar, a handful of mustard seed, a small chili pepper tucked into each jar. There are jars of blackberry jam, gooseberry jam, jelly made with Himrod grapes given us by Harold Rhenisch and flavoured with rosemary and lime zest. Still to come: spicy red pepper jelly (a family favourite with lamb), maybe rosehip jelly (because otherwise the squirrels station themselves by my second-story bedroom window and throw the hips to the ground below; they’ve been throwing fir cones to the ground for a few weeks now, hitting the plywood covering the kindling pile so that we wake close to dawn to the sound of shots. What was that? What was that? And then sink back, realizing it’s the squirrels. Again.) The deer have already eaten all the low-growing crabapples but there are plenty in another tree for bears to return to, as they do every fall, and they’re welcome to the scabby fruit, though I hate it when they tear a branch in their eagerness to pick every apple.


Reading my dictionary this morning, I thought how glad I am to have a few old skills. Food preserving, quilting (for there is one in the works for an event later this fall), even decoding a word and its origins in a 1964 edition of OED. We have two sets of the dictionary in its larger incarnation, in two volumes. Well, no. We have three sets. We have one set of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a gift to John from me about 15 years ago, bought at Macleod’s Books in Vancouver, missing its case but a treasure. And then we received the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes as an incentive for (re)joining the Folio Society. When it arrived, we realized it was missing a section of pages or had been misbound somehow. (When I look at it now, I see only that there are some pages repeated, out of sequence, and I don’t use it enough to be familiar with its tricks.) The Folio Society cheerfully sent another set. I don’t imagine there are huge numbers of people wanting a dictionary in two volumes, for which a magnifying glass at the very least is required. (I’ve given up on those and bought reading glasses.) But it’s good to have these books for when you do need an authoritative source and online dictionaries are not that, or not to me anyway. In some ways our world is moving away from such notions — of ultimate authority, linguistic, orthographic, or otherwise —  but although communities use language and keep it lively and generative, they don’t always keep its long history in their memories. I’d been thinking of distillation as essence, as something (like 4 pounds of tomatillos) reduced to its essential flavour. But that’s process, really, and there’s so much more at play (and at work) in the word itself and its origins. And one word leads to another, either through its own relationships or simply by those around it on the page. The word before “distil” in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary is “distichous”, a word I’ve never seen before. And what does it mean? “Having fruit etc. arranged in two vertical lines on opposite sides of stem.” Yet it’s a form of phyllotaxis, which I’ve recently read a fair bit about (so maybe I just kind of skimmed over “distichous” if it appeared) for the long essay I wrote, “Euclid’s Orchard”.

Phyllotaxis is the term used for the study of the order of the position of leaves on a stem, how the spiral arrangement allows for optimum exposure to sunlight. I think of my children, my brothers, our parents and grandparents and all the generations of the spiral arranged on our own family tree. We are a case study in phyllotaxis, all of us absorbing the light, all of us contributing (“The whole is greater than the part”), even in death, to the ongoing life and vitality of the tree. Though by now, who knows its genus, its specific name.

We have a fire this morning, the first in months, the sweet smell of burning fir taking the damp out of the air, calling me to note the change in weather, season, to celebrate plentitude and to remember the beautiful utility of my small desk dictionary.

The Years

It might seem that I don’t read much. These entries focus on my garden, or mushroom gathering, or encounters with lizards, snakes, and bees. Or recount a meal with friends, or a brief (or extended) trip to destinations near and far. But in fact I read all the time. I don’t have what I think of as a television metabolism. Ditto for dvds, unless I know ahead of time that I’m going to love the film and not resent the two hours taken from books. Each evening I go up to my bed, settle all four pillows behind me, and take up a book from the stack beside my bed. This week the stack is composed of Ian McEwan’s Solar, William Boyd’s new novel (which I’ve just begun and which takes place in Vienna), a travel book by Frances Mayes which is beautifully written but almost unbearably self-congratulatory.

Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about my early twenties, when I was finding myself as a writer. Or beginning to: this is perhaps more accurate. I felt so vulnerable, almost porous: the world seemed to enter my body in every breath of wind, each unfolding hill ahead of me on the walks I took regularly with my family’s dog. I knew I had to find a way to express and contain my experience of the world and poetry was that gift to me. For me.

And books too, particularly biographies and collections of what is now called creative non-fiction. (What was it called then, I’m wondering? I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, which I read shortly after it was published in 1974, when I was 19.) When I first began to read Virginia Woolf, it was such a revelation. Her work was so precise, yet lyrical too, closer to poetry sometimes than other prose I was reading. I devoured her novels and then discovered her essays. The Common Reader was so engaging and encouraging, somehow, to a young woman on the west coast of Canada; I felt emboldened to take myself a little more seriously. I loved A Writer’s Diary, too, which led me to the complete diaries, edited so intelligently by Anne Olivier Bell; and then Quentin Bell’s wonderful biography. Over the years I read many other Woolf biographies and their focus shifted as the times changed. Lyndall Gordon’s, for example, and Hermione Lee’s – they explored Woolf’s sexual abuse and looked at the arc of her life from a feminist perpective; useful and important scholarship.

I thought of Virginia Woolf a lot during the week we spent in Bloomsbury in early March. On Marchmont Street, for instance, where we drank coffee on stools looking out at the sunlight and ate pastries from a wonderful bakery, I recalled her diary entry: “Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?”  When I came home, I reread The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway, I reread The Years, and the diaries, wanting her voice in my head as I went about my days. I need her courage these days, feeling a little as though my writing is a little too old-fashioned for these hyped-up times.

Yesterday we were in Vancouver to see a play and I thought I’d check out the Woolf shelf at Macleod’s Books. And there was Quentin Bell’s biography, in two volumes, in a slipcase with that gorgeous photograph of Virginia as a girl, soft and dreamy, on one side and a later photograph, still dreamy but also older, haunted, on the other, a fourth printing of the Hogarth Press Edition. I looked to see how much it cost and was delighted to see that Volume 1 was inscribed by Quentin Bell to one Elisabeth Jenson. And the price? About what a lunch would cost, with a glass of wine. So I bought them and they’re on my bedside table.