by hand

Yesterday we participated in the Alcuin Society’s Wayzgoose, held every two years in the Alice McKay Room of the Vancouver Public Library. It’s a fair, really, featuring the work of letterpress printers, book artists, papermakers, marblers, and others involved in one or another (or many) aspects of the book arts. We have a couple of old platen presses — a Chandler and Price and a smaller Adana — and we print poetry broadsides as well as ephemera. Our production has slowed down in recent years as we concentrate on our own writing (and somehow there just isn’t as much time, it seems, though where it goes is an ongoing mystery to me). We’ve printed wedding invitations (two weddings, both our sons, in 2012) and one little birth announcement (a poem John wrote for Kelly); I know there’s musing about a second birth announcement, for grandson Arthur, born 3 1/2 weeks ago. So although we’re not printing as much as we did in previous years, we go to the Wayzgoose to see what others are doing and to offer interested parties a chance to look at and even buy our backlist. We still have sets of our Companion Series, for example: we asked twelve Canadian poets to respond to a poem of their choice and we printed the two poems side by side. Here’s the prospectus (and if you are unable to zoom in on it and you’re interested in learning more about the series, just send me a note):


(The email address on this prospectus is an old one. If you are interested in learning more about the Companions broadsides, you can email me at the address provided on the Contacts link on the menu on the right-hand side of my home-page.)

It’s always so inspiring to see what others are doing. Phyllis Greenwood spent the day demonstrating the art of marbling paper. In the past I’ve bought sheets of her marbled paper and I keep thinking they’ll be perfect for a project — end papers for novellas, maybe? Or that essay series I hoped to publish under our High Ground imprint — chapbooks of single essays, printed digitally, but with letterpress covers. And marbled end-papers? Hmmm. (Again, where does the time go? Why haven’t I done this? Another of those dreams I wake in the night from and wonder why I don’t simply get to it.)

There are grand projects on display at the Wayzgoose, and smaller ones; and this time it was the smaller ones that spoke to me so clearly. Frances Hunter of Red Tower Bookworks had the most beautiful notebooks, all handbound, and many of them with covers of handmade or marbled papers. I bought several of the latter, though it was the former that intrigued me. She is making paper using invasive species — Daphne laureola, or spurge-laurel, gathered in the woods surrounding her home at Prospect Lake, near Victoria; and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus). The Prospect Lake area is one I know well, having spent my teen years at nearby Royal Oak, and having ridden my horse many Sunday mornings out to Prospect Lake where old farms and the general store held stories of the colonial settlement of the Saanich peninsula. Frances is working on projects involving moths and their association with plants of the Garry oak meadows of the peninsula; readers of my book Mnemonic: A Book of Trees will know how dear those meadows are to my heart.

This morning I put two of the notebooks on my maple cutting board (that’s a strip of spalted maple you can see running down the heart of the board) and took their photographs. Somehow the notebooks speak to me of possibilities, their blank pages ready and willing.


saffron spine

“radiating light”

arbutus at Francis Point“There are arbutus trees at Francis Point, a grove of them, leaning out to sea, wanting to partake of the cool air off the water on summer days. Mount one and stretch your body along its length. Has there ever been a tree more seductive to the touch? Has there ever been a trunk, peeled of its bark and new, more like the smooth torso of a beloved? Without mark or blemish, asking us to run our hands along its taut muscularity? The underwood is chartreuse, radiating light.

How many times do we shed our outer layers in a life? How many times expose our tender new skin to the world, soft as the soles of a child who has never touched the earth? Looking out my window, I see the bark curling from the arbutus on the south side of my house. Like paint peeling from an old surface, we hardly notice it but are drawn to what’s revealed underneath. Steaming the bark with the pale bulbs of camas would turn them pink as young flesh, beauty for the eye and the palate.”

                                                              from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane Editions, 2011)

arbutus bark

the road from Lillooet to Kamloops, via Pavilion

First, a walk below Lillooet along the Fraser River, a path we quickly realized was a bear’s daily route. Scat every ten feet or so, filled with pin cherry pits and rose-hips, one so utterly fresh it almost steamed. But no other sign of him. We were led to the edge of the river by deer tracks, made just a little earlier:

P1100697The pines had long needles (not always the case in dry country) so I decided to gather them at various points today and tomorrow to make a basket when we return. Readers of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees might remember my efforts a few years ago and my hands have the sense they’d like to try again.

“Take a bundle of three pine needles (or two bundles, says one book). So take your three, six, or even eight pine needles, and snip the sheath(s) off the end (or pinch off between your fingers). Make a little circle of one end with a tail of the sheath-end of the needles. Thread a length of raffia onto a wide-eyed tapestry needle and begin to wrap the circle, drawing the tapestry needle from back to front. Oh, I am all fingers, all thumbs! No dexterity at all. I study the diagram, wrap my circle, drop my pine needles, and unravel my raffia until it is impossible to work with. I begin again, burning that first attempt. Then the second.”

I loved the cactus gardens and the little nest in the top of a small tree:


P1100715On the road through the Fountain Reserve, there were signs:

P1100721and when we reached Pavilion, we saw the sad evidence that the store had burned down: the remains of a beautiful stone fireplace and a two-storey chimney, metal flashing still intact. (Actually we knew this because we drove the road last in 2009 but I’d forgotten. The first time we saw the Pavilion store was on a camping trip with our children and we’d driven down over Pavilion Mountain, through the Diamond S Ranch, on a hot day and we stopped at the store for ice-cream.)

P1100726Hoodoos near Marble Canyon:

P1100736We didn’t drive into Walhachin this time but looked across the dry bench and over the Thompson River to where it exists like a small piece of history wrapped inside an enigma. Every time we pass, we realize that the flumes that were constructed in 1909-10 to carry water to the orchard community from springs near Deadman River, some twenty miles away, are a little more decrepit. They haven’t carried water for almost a century but when I did a reading tour for my novel The Age of Water Lilies, which is partly set in Walhachin, many people talked about the flumes and told me stories about a great-uncle who’d worked on them or a grandfather who went off to fight in the Great War, some of them with Lord Strathcona’s Horse, and I know that the flumes hold memories more seamlessly than they ever held water.


the metaphysics of time

In my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane, 2011), there are many brief meditations on time. As I was writing that book, my parents and parents-in-law were fading, and then dying. In the fall of 2009, my father (with whom I had a complicated but not unloving relationship) was in the process of leaving the earth. Well, he was, and he wasn’t.  I’d left my home on the Sechelt Peninsula several times in early fall to visit my mother in Victoria and assist her with arrangements for my father; he’d gone into hospital with a whole lot of medical issues (prostate cancer, dementia, plain ill-humour…) and with my help, and (more usefully, I think) the help of my brothers, we were trying to find a placement for him a long-term care facility. This coincided with a trip John and I had planned for ages — two weeks in Paris, a week in the south of France, and two weeks in Venice. My older brother Dan urged me to take the trip. We had a plan in place and there wasn’t much I could do — and it seemed that he might go on until the New Year in any case. I went to Victoria, held his hand (though he didn’t know me at that point), helped my mum with some stuff, and then went to France. I called at regular intervals and by the time we were in Venice, it seemed that my father was truly dying. It was strange to try to figure out the time difference and the logistics of who would be where at a particular time of the day. Should we phone my mum? Or my brother Dan (who was in Victoria)? Or my daughter Angelica, who lived in Victoria and who was helping her grandmother? Should I fly back to Canada? They all said no.  (Do I feel guilty about this? Oh yeah.)

In Mnemonic, I wrote this, in a section called “In Venice, a death”:

O the metaphysics of time: that I could stand at a phone kiosk on the Campo San Pantalon, calling my mother on a Saturday evening in November to reach her as she drank her morning coffee. “I won’t lie to you,” she told me. “He has a cough that the nurses say means he will probably die this weekend.” Her weekend was beginning was mine was half-finished.

I remember that time so vividly. I’d never been to Venice before though John had and it was so beyond what I’d ever imagined. People talk about the smell. In November there was no smell, beyond the drift of strong coffee from the little bars, the rich dense scent of history in every church or palace, the beautiful odour of gardens on Torcello as we walked from where we’d been let off by the vaporetto and then the dim smell of stone in Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (built in 639) and the 12 c. Santa Fosca where I lit a candle for my father (he was a very lapsed Catholic but candle wax is a powerful link to him and his religious paradoxes).


And when I called again, from the Campo San Pantalon, which was just opposite the little pension where we were staying, with its own glorious church, it was to discover that my father had died the night before. But what day? It was night for me, morning in Victoria, and they were talking about the previous night. I tried to grapple with my sense of time. What had I been doing? Where was I? Were the candles in time, or too late? Did the smoke mean anything in the cool November air on Torcello where cats prowled as we walked the path and where we stopped for a glass of prosecco for the pleasure of sitting at a small table and writing into our respective notebooks?

Time is again on my mind as I wait for the birth of my first grandchild, due any time now. I think of the baby’s father (my son) and how I was so impatient for his birth. I wrote a poem for him, which was printed on his birth announcement, and in it I confess to impatience:

Every day I vacuum and clean,

make sure your clothes are ready.

Please come. I wake in the morning

from dreams of you, I love you,

you are curled up back to my heart…

Today a note from the grandchild’s mother assured me she is comfortable and relaxed. So I tidied the linen shelves, sorted out what I wanted to keep and what I no longer needed (single sheets from the years when my children slept in bunk-beds or their own narrow pine-framed beds). I aired and refolded the sweet-smelling linen (sachets of lavender!) and organized the shelves for the next chapter of our lives.

How quickly those previous chapters have concluded themselves! My father five years gone, some of  his ashes under a copper beech I planted in honour of his father’s birthplace: Bukovina, “place of beeches”. My mother who followed him, exactly a year later, and some of whose ashes have joined him there. I still see the tiny bone fragments when I water. My children gone out into the world, their pine beds given away, and now the old sheets tucked into a bag for the thrift store. And in the thread of time that is always now, we are waiting for the new child to join the family, a basket of blankets and quilts ready for its bed.

waiting at home

Yesterday we returned home from a week in Ottawa, a week during which a deck was built, many walks were taken, large meals were indulged in, and some explorations were conducted at the Museum of Civilization. I kept seeing wildflowers I wasn’t familiar with (near Calabogie Lake), and trees. A pine with very long soft leaves. Oaks just coming into leaf, the leaves themselves almost frilly, with red margins. (I brought back an acorn and will try to grow one for myself.) On the Eagle Nest trail, there was a small toadlet and amazing views and I brought back memories of those stored in a safe place.

Coming up the driveway, we were so thrilled to see that the wisteria framing our patio (on a long cedar beam taken from a tree we took down years ago and had milled into lumber, a process described in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees) was in full bloom. When we left last week, it was in bud, the leaves opening but not yet fully out. Friend Jeffrey, who stayed here for a couple of nights while we were away, took this photograph:

wisteriaThere are two more of these beauties around the house and I took a root to Forrest and Manon for their garden. (John has already been booked for next spring to help them to build a pergola over one end of the new deck.) The wisterias came from John’s mother who brought them in turn from her mother’s garden in Felixstowe, along with mint, perennial geranium, honeysuckle, tucked into her suitcase after summer visits. I took kale to Ottawa and a tiny mountain ash; and I brought back violets, the ones growing like weeds in the grass and which I carefully dug up from the place where the deck was going to be built.

And it looks like one of my novellas has found a home. A publisher who is enthusiastic about the form has written to say she would love to publish Patrin in the spring of 2016! More on this as things develop but this news is too good to keep to myself!

the view

We spent the weekend in Victoria so I could participate in the Victoria Writers Festival. What a wonderful few days. The organizing committee did a fabulous job of choreographing a seamless and beautiful programme of readings, panel discussions, and workshops. And a wrap-up party at the home of John Gould and Sandy Mayzell. I loved walking across the campus at Camosun College, under the mature Garry oaks, to read from my work and to share stories and laughter with a great group of writers.

John and I went to the Island two days early in order to have time to do our usual rambling around the city. We stayed in the Surf Motel on Dallas Road and this was the view from our room:


This is the Odgen Point breakwater. I wrote about this breakwater in Mnemonic: “All those huge granite blocks were brought from Hardy Island, near where I live on the Sechelt Peninsula. I want to walk out on it as I did as a young girl with boyfriends on dark Friday nights. We’d pause to kiss as waves crashed against the exposed side. I always felt like I might fall — into the deep cold water of Juan de Fuca Strait of the most mysterious waters of human affection.” It always felt kind of dangerous to me. And now I note that railings have been erected along both sides of the breakwater which is perhaps a metaphor for aging.

I walked by myself down Dallas Road to stand in front of the house Charles Newcombe built in 1907 and part of the layered history that is Victoria to me. I stopped to pick a sprig of Quercus virginiana from the tree I wrote about in Mnemonic. I’ll keep it on my desk to take me back to that street, that house, its complicated legacy.


We also drove out to Goldstream Park to watch the beginnings of the salmon run there. We saw just a few fish, early swimmers, and some dippers in the shallow riffles. It’s an extraordinary place, that river making its way under huge maples and cedars more than 500 years old.  I was taken to Goldstream Park as a child to see the fish each autumn and I’ve never forgotten the smell, the excitement of glimpsing them sidling under the ferns overhanging the river edges, and their intricate skeletons stripped clean by eagles and ravens. Time stands still, and it doesn’t.

Half a glass

After 32 years, our drain field gave up draining and needed to be repaired. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, I know, but it’s really been the focus of my days lately. And it just so happened that we’d made our vegetable garden over top of the field, lovingly but carelessly, and although I have a small notebook with early notes about what I wanted where, it never really worked out that way. My novels are short on plot and my garden is short on design. It seems I’ve always been drawn to colour, texture, the atmosphere of abundance — this has never been particularly helpful when people ask “What’s your book about?” or when I need to remember where exactly I put tulips last spring and which peony is deep pink, which is red.

In May, this is what the garden looked like:

potato box

plum poppy

last of the pink crabapple

So, lush, green, with a (I like to think) spirited sense of joy.

And here’s what the new area looks like today after many days of fairly brutal work with a pick, shovel, rake, trowel.

new box of perennial greens                                                                                                    looking down

It’s not beautiful — yet. It’s not finished of course and it will be entirely different from its earlier self, mostly because we want to know the exact location of the lines in future, so we’re building the beds inbetween them. But today is the first day that I actually felt that the glass was half-full instead of half-empty. I re-planted many perennial greens — lamb salad, kale, arugula, blood-red sorrel — and watered them in with fish fertilizer. That big mound you can see in the foreground will be framed on Sunday, using lumber milled from the cedar I wrote about in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees: “…some planks which began as one dimension but then tapered as the logs narrowed. I could see them as benches or tables, balanced on stumps.” John has been working out the best way to use the boards we stored under the house and I have to say that for him, this particular glass has always been half-full. He could see that the mud-hole, heavy with rock, would improve day by day while I moped around, wanting everything fixed immediately, wanting the ferns back, the thickets of sage and columbine, the corner bed where the bean tee-pees went. He just kept sawing boards, filling the wheel-barrow with rocks, smoothing out the heaps of soil, plucking out roots that he thought might be day-lilies or tulip bulbs. The other morning we looked out to see the elk just to the right of this photograph, their rumps towards us, and we knew they’d been poking around, hoping for kale and garlic tops (which the deer never bothered but which the elk adore so we extended the black mesh fence to include the garlic box). That very muddy area in front of the fence used to be lawn. Well, to be honest, it was mostly moss with clover and dandelions (a perfect bitter addition to salad). I’ve been squinting, hoping that I can imagine the area in two or three months, cool and green on spring mornings, snakes making their way down to the garden from the rocks above.

High Ground Press

The other evening, John had the honour of speaking at the Alcuin Society’s Annual General Meeting in Vancouver. His topic: “The Printing of Poetry, the Poetry of Printing”. In 1980, he went with a friend to Prince George in a rented van and brought home an ancient Chandler and Price platen press which became the basis of our High Ground Press. John’s idea was to print poetry broadsheets in limited editions and for 30 years he’s done this in the belief that “poems warrant singular lives in the light, no less contemplative (and as compelling) as their lives in books, voice or imagination.”

It was interesting for me to watch as he showed images of our print-shop,

our presses (for the C&P was joined by a small Adana from England a few summers ago),

and a couple of the broadsheets he’s printed. This one was part of our second series of broadsheets and the image isn’t particularly crisp but the poem, by Jan Zwicky, is beautiful and I love the design:

And this broadsheet is from our Companions Series, for which we asked Canadian poets to respond to a poem in the canon. Sue Wheeler chose a poem by Don McKay (who had a poem in an earlier series so the sense of companionship extends into our printing history as well as in this series…):

In Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, I write about the history of printing and type in an chapter about my grandfather’s origins in Bukovina, and I say this about John: “My husband labours in our print-shop over type, chases, ornaments, and the unwieldy nature of ink. There are far more convenient ways to transfer texts to paper, this suits his meditative nature, and mine too, for I love to think of the slow work of poetry finding its way to a broadsheet. Paper impressed with ink, like a kiss, a tattoo.”