“Tell what you saw…”

greece

Now I know why I saved the olive oil tin and planted rosemary in it. All spring I’ve remembered Crete and my time there 43 years ago, a girl in love with Agamemnon, and all the beauty of the herbs and music.

Tell what you saw as the bus raced towards Agia Galini. Mountains. Tiny villages, white with churches, perched so high that you couldn’t imagine a reason for a village to be there until you remembered the history of Turks, Venetians, Germans; and yet a road lurched up the mountainside, sheep and goats grazed on the rocky slope, a few donkeys carried their riders uphill, laden with sticks and sacks.

Steep rises covered in dittany, juniper, plane trees in the squares of towns we passed through, shady and green. Holm oak and kermes oak. Rocks covered in low-growing thyme—by now you’d eaten your γιαούρτι με μέλι and knew that the bees had worked the thyme flowers to create this ambrosia, the first honey for which you’d been able to detect its origins.

Groves of olives, and long rows of grapes on the fertile plains. Through the open windows you smelled dust and unfamiliar wind.

Signs in Greek, which you yearned to be able to read. (You had your grammar and were trying to master the alphabet.)

You passed houses almost smothered in vines, the window frames and doors painted blue. Rusty oil cans held geraniums and lush basil; tomato plants climbed the whitewashed walls. Old women shrouded in black sat on chairs and held up a hand to the driver of the bus.

Outside a church in a small town, you saw an Orthodox priest eating an apple.

–from “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, Goose Lane Editions, 2012.

 

the intricate text in the wood

On our way back from a swim that didn’t happen because someone at the pool let about a third of the water drain overnight (ooops) and the young women life-guarding this weekend were trying to fill it again and to turn away the eager swimmers (just us, at 10 a.m.), anyway, on our way back we stopped at one of the trails running along the slope of Mount Hallowell to gather 7 big bags of leaves from the mature bigleaf maples growing along that part of the trail. Tomorrow if it’s nice we’ll return for another load. We do this most years. The leaves make wonderful garden mulch. I’ve just been spreading a few bags over the raspberry beds and the boxes where I grow mostly perennial greens. The chicory is still lovely and leafy and the kale that the deer ate when they broke into the garden is coming back. Some of the seeds in the long kale pods were sprouting so I potted up a bunch of the pods in a tub for the sunroom. So far the deer haven’t their way into there.

chicory

7 years ago on this day I launched my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, a memoir of sorts exploring my life in within the context of my love of all things arboreal. (7 years! I know I’m becoming old because of how I react to time. It hardly seems like 7 years but in that time so much has happened: 2 weddings, 3 more books, 4 grandchildren…) Mnemonic was a book I loved writing, though it took me out of my usual comfort zone. There were things I wanted to find out and the routes I took were strange and (to me) wonderful. I had to harness my impatience as I worked my way through material, puzzling and thinking, and finding a way to structure the book so that a reader might feel as though she or he was in a grove of trees, a memory grove, guided by Cicero. Pliny the Elder, John Evelyn, and the ravens of Merritt, B.C.

In fall, the samaras whirl to the ground: time to be grateful for fire, the woodshed neatly stacked with fir and bigleaf maple. Bringing in logs, I sometimes see areas of spalting within the chunks of maple I carry. This is a bacteria that causes veining in the wood, a kind of scribbling, like pen lines on paper. The bacteria can be introduced to felled maple, and cultured or managed for a time, to create beautiful patters which woodworkers value. We have a cutting board in our kitchen made by a local craftsman, featuring strips of both spalted and clear-grained maple. When I clean and oil the board, I marvel at the intricate text in the wood we use to cut our bread. Like those beetles that wrote obituaries to the ponderosa pines near Kamloops, something lively is at work to leave its story intact for the future to read as loaves are sliced, fish boned or trimmed of their fins.

cutting board

7 years later, the board is well-used, its stories intact, and new ones have been added. The stains of ripe cheeses, apples, tomatoes heavy with seeds, red cabbage partly gnawed by elk or deer trimmed, then shredded, a splash of red wine from a glass too near the cutting knife, lemon juice rubbed in to get rid of the scent of pine mushrooms, garlic.

 

 

“Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”

I’ve recently finished reading Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s Following the River: Traces of Red River Women in which she travels both physically and imaginatively through the country where her great-grandmother Catherine lived and died. Rupert’s Land, Selkirk, Norway House, Warren’s Landing—all these places hold traces of the family story. I won’t tell it here. But it’s worth reading, both for the elusive strands that have been painstakingly recovered, in part or in whole, and woven into something both practical (because we need these records of our ancestors to help us understand our own place in the world) and beautiful, and for the deep sense of the land and what it remembers (those traces). Abandoned graveyards, modest monuments to lost or murdered young women, foundations of buildings long fallen to earth. There’s poetry here, there’s prayer, there’s the simple naming of names in all their possible variants, from both English and the different dialects of Cree that shaped Lorri’s family.

My family history began on a different continent. But there were many moments when I saw in Lorri’s book something of my own attempts to parse the language of old documents and photographs, some of this in a language as difficult to shape in my mouth as Cree was for Lorri. Sometimes what I tried to read wasn’t language at all but images. It was often strange and frustrating but then there’d be a moment when I understood what I was seeing. Lorri realizes that a photograph of her great-grandmother with her husband and children was taken after Catherine’s death and that Catherine’s head has been imposed upon another woman’s body for the sake of the photograph. Thinking about Catherine’s daughter, Lorri’s own grandmother, she wonders, “What must it have been like to stand behind someone else’s body wearing your mother’s clothes, holding still until the exposure was complete, feeling such profound absence?”

I had such a moment with my musings about family photographs and I remembered writing about it on this blog. Here is a post from July, 2011, as I was finalizing the proofs of my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees.

 The Moirs Happiness Package

 

In my forthcoming book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, there’s an essay about my father and his father. I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather and in this piece, I try to puzzle through the mysteries of family connection, try to find traces of my grandfather through the small clues in my father’s stories, the tiny hoard of memories. At one point, I was thinking about two photographs in the basement of my parents’ home in Victoria. This is what I wrote about one of those photographs:

“In the second photograph, my father stands in his white shirt, short pants, dark stockings, and boots on a rattan chair. Someone has told him to stand still, because there is nothing natural about his pose. But — and here’s the bizarre thing — hovering in the air, as though balanced on the arm of the chair, is the swaddled form of his sister Julia, who died three years before he was born. This is the late 1920s, before Photoshop — before any of the techniques we are now so accustomed to using. I know that photographers could manipulate images even in the nineteenth century (I think of Hannah Maynard in Victoria with her trick portraits and artistic interpretations). But this is clearly the work of someone who didn’t have much skill at all. The half of the photograph in which baby Julia has been inserted is blurry.

That only this one photograph survives suggests that although money was probably in short supply, my grandparents wanted a record of the two children they had conceived together. Perhaps they were more sentimental than I’ve been led to believe, because what other reason would result in an image of a baby being inserted into the photograph of her brother-to-be, at least five years after her death? Julia was nearly three when she died, and yet the photograph is of an infant, wrapped in a blanket, wearing a hat against the cold.

Photographs are intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying. I’ve tried to read these ones for hidden narratives of love and family connection and perhaps I’ve interpreted them completely incorrectly. Still, sometimes photographs with their cryptic stories and forgotten conclusions are all we have.”

I wrote the essay as my father was dying and since then my mother has died as well. I brought home that photograph (a grainy image clumsily cut to fit in a wooden frame) and many boxes of family papers which I’ve been slow to sort. Every time I open a box, the smell of the past – dust, old cigarette smoke, the sadness of missed or lost connections – overpowers me and I close it again, thinking that the time will come when I’m more resilient or at least able to look at the materials without crying.

The day before yesterday, I opened one of the boxes, determined to put together some photographs for a family project. The problem is, nothing is sorted or organized, so in some ways, I’ve no idea where to look. There are some albums, yes, but then there are also envelopes with bank statements, stray photographs caught between them, or my high school report cards shoved into folders with baby pictures, drawings, my grandmother’s naturalization papers from 1937, etc. Where to begin?

I began with the Moirs Happiness Package, a chocolate box with a bluebird on it, and the slogan, “There’s happiness in every box.” Inside, a small collection of  photographs, all of them bent and foxed, and all of them as astonishing to me as anything I’ve ever seen. My father was the only surviving child of his mother’s second marriage. The first child of that union was Julia. She died of diphtheria, I believe, and is buried in Drumheller, Alberta, where the family lived. There are two photographs of Julia’s funeral. One shows a group of solemn people in front on a bleak house, the men and women dressed in dark suits, the girls (some of them must be the daughters of my grandmother’s first marriage) in white dresses and veils. A small white casket is set on a wooden bench. The second photograph is taken inside. The casket is on a table covered with a starched white cloth and is flanked by two girls in white. A child’s face can be seen surrounded by flowers: Julia.

There are two other photographs, too, which I realized were the ones which had been brought together to create the large image of my father and his sister. What’s amazing is that there are notes on the back of them, obviously the work of the person charged with “regrouping”. Notes about tint and placement. “Boy and baby only. Fair. Grey blue.”

 

There’s so much I don’t know. I want to find out more about my grandmother, a woman who was born in Horni Lomna, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1881 and who left, with her first husband, Joseph Yopek, in 1913. He died of flu in 1918 and she was left with 8 children. She married my grandfather a year or two later (I should know when and will try to find out), giving birth to Julia, and to my father, in 1926.

Our recent house-guests from the Czech Republic, Petr and Lenka, showed me pictures of Horni Lomna. It’s a small village in Moravia, nestled in the Beskydy Mountains. When John and I return to the Czech Republic next February, I intend to go to my grandmother’s birthplace and see if anything remains – a name in a cemetery, in a parish record, perhaps.

And a coda to that post. I did go to my grandmother’s birthplace and although I couldn’t enter the graveyard because of snow several feet deep, I did walk down a road by the Lomna River to stand in the snow and look at the house where she was raised, where she lived with her parents and her five children while her first husband went to Canada to make a home for them to come to the next year (1913). What happened then is the subject of a long essay in my most recent book, Euclid’s Orchard. And yes, it involves photographs, old documents, reading a landscape as foreign to me as the languages my grandparents spoke.

horni-lomne-26

“How in age our own bodies remember their youth…”

wedding1

38 years ago today John and I were married in Sidney, B.C., dressed in our finest. The bride wore a gauzy dress made by Yofi Creations and a wreathe of yellow roses in her hair; the groom was resplendent in a plaid tie, a Harris tweed jacket we’d bought in London and which never really fit (the salesman kept saying, “Oh I like my clothes tight, don’t you?” and it seemed churlish to disagree…), and wide corduroy trousers. This morning John said, 38 years, and his hands made that gesture: where did they go? Where indeed.

Furthermore, the rings in the branches that have been cut off show the number of its years, and which were damper or drier according to the greater or lesser thickness of these rings. The rings also reveal the side of the world to which they are turned . . . — Leonardo Da Vinci, Leonardo on Painting

How in age a tree remembers, how the feet of tiny birds felt on the bark; how on a summer day, drowsing in sunlight, a tree might have been startled awake by a bear climbing to its first strong branch; how an osprey might have settled on the broken crown to survey the lake, the glittering run of river. How the pines stand in their wild observatories, anchored in rock, looking to the heavens, drinking deeply from the aquifer. They have seen meteorites fall, leaned into wind with sockeye migrating below them; given a small shake as ash from burning forests settled on their boughs.

How in age our own bodies remember their youth, how it felt to make love on bare ground (pollen drifting from one cone to another), to rise and walk among trees, light shimmering through their leaves. Listen! A nuthatch, a grey jay, a woodpecker, feasting on insects. How time compresses, so that all summers arrange themselves in a codex of dry skin, tart berries on the tongue, the surprise of cold water as we entered rivers. How later, organizing the photographic archive, we try to imagine ourselves back into that tent on Nicola Lake, our children racing down from the volcano, the pines filtering early morning sun so beautifully that later we say, “it was paradise.”

—from “Pinus ponderosa: A Serious Waltz, a chapter from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, published by Goose Lane Editions, 2011.

moss and oak: a love story

this year

This morning, walking over to my vegetable garden, I surprised a chestnut-backed chickadee pulling tufts of moss off a rock. I feed the chickadees all winter and the reward is that there are usually pairs nesting in the boxes John built years ago for violet-green swallows. He built to the specific requirements for the swallows and yes, they’ve used the boxes a time or two, but mostly the chickadees raise their families in the nest-boxes. And the swallows? They swoop over our house in April, testing the ambience—quiet, gracious forest all around, a small pond— and then most of them nest down by the Italian resort on Ruby Lake where red-painted birdhouses fill the trees like a version of a Neopolitan neighbourhood. Go figure.

And then as I repotted plants from the sunroom for their summer season on the various decks, I could hear, then see, the chickadees delightedly discovering the nest-box on a big fir near the house. It’s the same box they nested in last year (if this is the same pair that raised 7 young and whose first flight we were lucky enough to see) but it’s been moved from an arbutus that is due to be tended to by an arborist in early June. (Some of its lower limbs are dead and we can’t get at them to cut them away. The arborist is coming for some other work too.) They make the most delighted sounds as they enter the opening, and then come out again to report on its conditions. Clean! Ready for occupancy!

After watching them for a bit, I went back to my work. And the best part of it? Repotting a tiny Garry oak seedling I grew over the winter from an acorn gathered last fall at Rithet’s Bog in Victoria. We often walk around the bog when we’re in Victoria and it’s bittersweet. Before the subdivisions that have taken over the slopes of what used to be Broadmead Farm, before the townhouses and churches and a street named for Emily Carr, it was a wild area. Here’s what I wrote about it in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees:

In the late 1960s, I used to saddle my horse early on weekend mornings and ride him across the Pat Bay Highway to a gate leading up onto the old Rithet’s farmland. I was in my early teens, a lonely girl in search of lonely places. Someone told me that it was fine to ride there, but that the gate had to be kept closed, as there were cattle grazing in the area. I don’t really remember the cattle, but I occasionally saw deer in the tall grass. There were many oaks growing up the slope. In the spring, there were expanses of blue camas, yellow buttercups, and odd brown speckled flowers that I now know were chocolate lilies.
I loved the open beauty of those meadows, where pheasants roamed and flew up, sharp-winged as we approached. The meadows smelled intensely dry, fragrant as hay, though not dusty. I’d let my horse canter up the long slopes and loved the way sunlight filtered through the trees.

I’ve missed Garry oaks, their shape in winter, the branches gnarled, and the elegance of their leaves in summer. When we go to Victoria, I bore my husband and daughter with my stories of where I used to ride, where I walked among Garry oaks, which shopping centres were once dense with oaks and wildflowers. When I was writing Mnemonic, I kept a map of the tree’s historic range on my wall and I’d look at it daily, tracing the routes of my walk to school, my weekend rides, the private places where I’d go to get away from the clamour of my life. They were everything I wanted a tree to be, carriers of history and memory, my own and the city’s, and the acorn I brought home in my pocket held those things as potently as a seed can ever do. My small plant is so hopeful in its clay pot and I look forward to the day when it’s big enough to plant in a dry area behind the house.

garry oak

 

“If we return to the old home as to a nest”

I’ve been hard at work on an essay about my father’s family and the discoveries I made on a recent trip to Alberta. It’s a sad process, in a way. I think of them in their bleak house in Drumheller with its legacy of death and illness — the Spanish flu, diphtheria. The graves in the nearby cemetery, the marked ones and the unmarked. In the photographs I’ve been studying, there are blurry moments when I suspect I’m seeing ghosts. A hat on a chair. A dog watching an empty road, as though in anticipation. But those ghosts are also my ghosts so it’s work I need to do.

This morning I walked out to the garden to pick some kale for my morning smoothie and heard robin song. It was coming from the huge crabapple tree, given us 35 years ago by John’s mother; it’s now in full bloom. It’s so beautiful that you don’t even notice that the top branches were broken last fall by a bear. If you’re not familiar with this tree, you see only the deep pink blossoms, alive with bees and robins, and you don’t know that the fruit is small and scabby. And you won’t know that Vera Grafton once climbed its lower branches to gather fruit for jelly. That was the visit when she told me that her father had courted her mother by canoe, across Georgia Strait. Her mother lived in Nanaimo and her father was a member of the Shishalth Nation. How many years ago was that? Vera was in her 80s, I believe, when she picked the crabapples; and that was in 1997 or 1998. So think back, back, to the early days of the 20th century.

Coming back from the garden, I saw one robin fly to the nest under the eaves by the side porch and another quickly settle itself on the nest. This is the tree where they wait for the exchange to take place:

nest (2).JPG

This nest site is not the best place from our perspective. The side porch is where the woodbox is and on weekends like this one — wet and cool — we still use our woodstove. When we left for Alberta, there was nest building in an elbow of grapevine on the south side of the house. Dry grass, moss, lichens, small twigs. Then returning last week, I looked up as I was bringing in stuff from the car and there was a almost-completed nest under the eaves by the porch. No sign of the builders but next morning one of them at least was back at work. And we’re bringing wood in the front door, enough for one fire at a time. But watching the robins is worth a little inconvenience. Some years three clutches of young have fledged from this location. I often wonder if each year’s parents are the original parents or else subsequent generations who return and return and return. The song returns, the blossoms return, and that bear will return (alas).

nest (1).JPG

We have pleasure to look forward to over the next few weeks. The sound of chicks, then the occasional glimpse of them — or their open beaks! — as the parents work to keep them fed. The diligence of the parents as they swoop in and out with worms and other delicacies. And if we’re lucky, the sight of the young leaving the nest, flapping ungracefully on their first flight, often careening briefly through the air and landing in the lilacs. The parents scold and encourage. Some mornings we’ll see the family entire in the blue air as the young literally exercise their wings and learn to feed themselves.

Of course by now you will know that I am talking about my own family == three children raised in our homemade house, nurtured and loved, and coaxed easily from the nest with every hope for their long survival. Oh, and their return! “So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.” — from Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, with thanks to Gaston Bachelard.

There are ghosts, and ghosts. The blurry moments in the old photographs of my grandparents’ home in Drumheller as a funeral is recorded or a young boy — my father — rides his tricycle over the hard earth. The scratchy signature of my grandmother’s first husband on a petition to Ottawa, begging to be allowed to stay in the shack he’d built on land he didn’t own. It’s all mine, if I can only record it and commemorate it in all its difficult details.

wild and pruned

I’ve written three books that are autobiographical in nature. Two of them are collections of personal essays which explore family stories, the natural world, history, and landscape. And one of them — Mnemonic: A Book of Trees — does those things too but through a particular lens, using a structure which provides a (loose) through-line. The book is a memory grove and the narrative takes place among trees past and present, wild and pruned.

I’m not a user of social media, apart from this irregular blog. Mostly it’s because I don’t understand the parameters. And I don’t much like the language.  Twitter, “friend” used as a verb… About a month ago I asked my daughter to help me set up a Facebook page, thinking that I was somehow not participating the cultural conversation. Within an hour I had many friends. I had messages. I looked at photographs. Every time I walked by my desk, I’d think, “Oh, I wonder what’s new with my Facebook friends?” I’d check. I still hadn’t learned the code about status updates or likes or any of that so I was a bit confused but I realized that one could waste spend a lot of time in the Facebook world.  That night I was awake for hours wondering what on earth I’d done. So I got up in the wee hours and did whatever one does to unsubscribe or unjoin Facebook. I felt such relief! We all have a line in the sand, I guess, and who knew this would be mine? I think it’s my metabolism. I want long relationships, in person, or conversations on the phone. I want to walk with my friends or give them dinner, not *heart* something they’ve said on Facebook. But I also realize that I’m very much among the minority in this respect.

I really enjoyed a recent piece in the New Yorker: “A Memoir is not a Status Update”, by Dani Shapiro. She writes of the difference between living out loud on Facebook, “sharing” every breath we take,  and the methodical work at the heart of writing a memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/memoir-status-update

For the past two years I’ve been working on an extended work of non-fiction, a memoir of sorts, and it’s a very slow process indeed. One frayed thread takes me to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic, one tangled thread to Bukovina and the dense information in the metrical records of my grandfather’s village, one sad thread to Cape Breton Island, and one to the intricate and mysterious world of mathematics. And then there’s the actual thread, the spools of cotton I use to stitch together the quilt that accompanies this work.

“We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve—the one that every writer is intimate with—rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion. It is born of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

I get a little notice on the sidebar of the screen I use to compose these posts, asking me to refresh my connection to Facebook. But I’m not going to, not yet. I think it’s more important to keep my attentions focused on that slow deliberation, on the basket of thread I sort through regularly to see what colours I have to work with and what I might need in the future.

log cabin