“Often it will come to you even in your sleep.”


The other night, outside in the cold, looking at the red moon, spring felt a thousand years away. The stars were winter stars. No owls. A glaze of frost on every surface. But yesterday, walking up the mountain, John and I noticed how the light had changed. Not spring light, not yet. But there was a little warmth in it. And on our way down, we stopped to look at the first leaves of miners lettuce sprouting under some blackberry canes. Soon the early salads, the snippings of chives, the pizzas of dandelion greens, the buckets of forsythia blossoms brought into the house. This morning I woke from a complicated dream, not about any particular season, but I was younger, more nimble. So before the strange series of misadventures that began in late summer, 2016. Before the tests, the injections, the puzzling of specialists over screens. I’d like to think I’ve left that behind and that’s how I’m proceeding with my life but then I dream, I wake, and know where I am in the grand scheme. Or simply in the cycle of the seasons, of which winter is one.

The pillow’s low, the quilt is warm, the body smooth and peaceful,
Sun shines on the door of the room, the curtain not yet open.
Still the youthful taste of spring remains in the air,
Often it will come to you even in your sleep.

—Bai Juyi (772-846)

bitter greens

bitter greens

This time of year, I think of Rapunzel. I think of her mother, pregnant with her, so desperate for the taste of a particular salad green, thought to be Valerianella locusta, known as corn salad, lamb’s lettuce, mâche, but also perhaps parsley, ramps or rampion, that her husband was willing to give her unborn babe to the woman whose garden he’d been caught plundering for the sake of his wife’s health.

In Philip Pullman’s wonderful edition of the Brothers Grimm, it’s lamb’s lettuce growing in a neighbouring garden owned by a powerful witch:

One day the woman was standing at that window, and she saw a bed of lamb’s lettuce, or rapunzel. It looked so fresh and green that she longed to taste some, and this longing grew stronger every day, so that eventually she became really ill.

I also long for greens in early spring. Not the spring mix from plastic clamshells — somehow all those tiny leaves taste exactly the same and that taste is innocuous — or the bagged arugula, a most beautiful herb redolent of pepper and walnuts that needs sunlight and a bit of chill to really come into its own. I grow a couple of kinds but my favourite is one of the Diplotaxis spp., a wild-ish green with ferny leaves and a delicious spicy flavour. There are some 12th c. Italian texts called the Trotula, possibly the work of a woman doctor, that are considered the first specifically gynecological treatises and the wild arugula appears in them as a treatment for dysentery. So maybe arugula is a contender for the green that Rapunzel’s mother longed for? The garden her window overlooked, tended by that witch, was very likely a medicinal garden, and the witch was probably a herbalist.  There was wisdom in the growing of a variety of greens. Science now “tells” us what gardeners have always known: these plants contain so many important vitamins and elements necessary for heart health, muscle health, digestive function, vision, and more.

Yesterday I planted a bed of early greens. I have kale already and some miner’s lettuce —

miners lettuce.jpg

— as well as a blood-red sorrel. There are dandelions appearing by the garden paths and I planted their wild cousin, Cicoria selvatica da campo, for a reliable source of those bitter leaves. A newly-planted bed looks both plain and hopeful. Tiny seeds lovingly strewn in a shallow furrow, soil pressed over, labels tied onto bamboo sticks, a daily visit (or maybe even hourly) to see if anything has sprouted yet, and then one day, this:


And the greens are easy to grow. Many self-seed. That miner’s lettuce is growing in a tub on a deck by my kitchen so I can snip leaves for small dishes and there are seedlings coming up in neighbouring pots too. I also planted a row of it so we can have larger amounts of it in salad. The arugula self-sows and that Diplotaxis is a short-lived perennial in my garden; I’ve planted more because I never know how many of last year’s plants will have survived the winter (and this winter was severe). Kale — well, it’s everywhere. I’d like to grow watercress but I don’t have a damp enough area. I do know several places to gather it though. And it’s another contender for the plant Rapunzel’s mother craved. Which makes me wonder by Rapunzel’s father didn’t have a small garden patch of his own?

notes from (nearly) spring

It’s cold this morning, a relative thing I know, as it’s a coastal cold:  drizzly rain, the aftermath of wind, trees heavy with water, not snow. And by my front door, a reminder that spring is just around the corner:

front door

It’s the time of year when the heart wants both to be home, taking care of the tomato seedlings and the wonderful pea sprouts  —  particularly the Mendel peas, which I’d thought were lost after none grew last year, or at least none survived the mice and birds who kept plucking out the sprouts for their sweetness; but then I found a tiny envelope with 10 seeds from 2014. These have been planted inside and won’t go out until they’re too big to attract attention! So back to the heart and what it wants. To be home and to be elsewhere, the beautiful Thompson Plateau for instance, where the character in my current work-in-progress is searching for the landscapes of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson:

(from her notes)

A geological guidebook:
limestone; castellated lava hoodoos eroded by streams, extreme weather; red-rock pinnacles; silt bluffs from glacial meltwater and sinkholes; the scent of copper, lure of gold in the Highland Valley, mountains moved for the minerals and metals in granite; ancient communities in the mudstone and volcanic ash layers east of Cache Creek, forests of dawn redwoods, white cedars, sassafras and gingkos recumbent in the layers, along with tiny sleeping eosalmo driftwoodensis, earwigs, craneflies, dragonflies perfect in their physiology, reticulated and tumbling flower beetles, wasps, stick insects; rusting iron pebbles on the bed of the Tranquille River; grasslands of hummocks and tiny beautiful kettles fringed with soft grasses over glacial debris north of the Thompson.

To be near my children and my grandchildren (all 2 1/3 of them!), though that will come, in a few weeks (Victoria), a month (Edmonton), and two months (Ottawa). To drive away with field-guides and coffee in the travel mug and a rain-jacket just in case, stopping at every little museum or roadside attraction, sleeping in motels in small towns, walking out in the morning to see what people who live there see every day: a bridge over the Fraser River, the talus slope on the other side, a camel barn turned into a theatre, bluebirds, the wide sky.

But for today: a snipping of miners lettuce,

miners lettuce

a little jug of daffodils, some music, the warmth of the fire, and the incessant sound of the male Oregon junco who keeps visiting every window and the shiny metal chimney to attack his reflection, his rival.