redux: what does a carrier bag hold?

Note: this was from December 1, 2014. Yet it’s still true, still ongoing. I did finish both the essay and the quilt. The essay was published first in Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, edited by Josh MacIvor-Andersen, and then it became the title essay of a collection of my work, published by Mother Tongue Publishing. The quilt went to Forrest and Manon for their March birthdays. And it’s all happening again—essays in progress, quilts inspired by them, and my bedrock belief that it’s part of a continuum.

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For the past month or so, I’ve been trying to work on a long essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, which is loosely about mathematics, wine, love, horticulture, and genetics. It’s a hodgepodge, yes, but I know that there’s also a coherence there, a pattern, and I’m a little at a loss right now to see it. (I’ve also begun a novella which is taking my attention, though not all of it.) The essay has a quilt to accompany it; the quilt is a textural meditation on the mathematics in the essay and the essay also details the making of the quilt. The individual parts of the quilt are all designed and made and now I need to piece it together, to find a pattern for the individual squares (though in fact they’re rectangles!) to echo the elements in the essay. This is where I’m puzzled and can’t see or think my way through it.

I don’t like being idle. And I think best when I have some sort of hand work to do. I am a terrible knitter but sometimes I knit just to feel the accumulation of yarn making itself into a scarf or a blanket, a kind of magic emerging from the needles. And my quilting skills are only a little better but I love to see the possibilities of colour, harmonies, even narratives in fabric and to find ways to work with those. My brain is not logical and I can’t follow directions so the quilts I’ve made over the years (more than 25 — years and quilts) are very much my own. And they’re explorations.

Maybe they’re also carrier bags. Years ago I visited a class of students studying my novel, Sisters of Grass, and when I met their instructor before the class, he told me that he thought of my work in the tradition of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, from her essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World. As it turned out, I’d brought along a basket of objects central to the novel — a sampler, some Ponderosa pine cones, photographs taken by the ethnographer James Teit — so I noticed the instructor (a very congenial man) smiling as I unpacked my basket, reading a little from my novel, and passing around objects for interested students to look at.

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again-if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all.

A carrier bag holds more than food, of course. It holds anything you want it to and sometimes it holds ideas, simple ones and more adventurous ones. It holds scraps of fabric and pine needles for baskets and memories of campfires and the sweet scent of a baby sleeping.

This weekend I had such an urge to make something, my hands yearning for work. But I’m still weighing and pondering the final pattern of “Euclid’s Orchard” and wasn’t able to take that any further. I went into the trunk holding my stash of fabrics and pulled out a whole passle of scraps, bits and pieces left from other quilts but too pretty to throw away. There wasn’t enough to anything big or elaborate so I decided to cut what I had into five-inch squares and find a pleasing way to piece them together. It took two mornings to cut out all the squares — 168 of them — and then an afternoon and a morning to get to the point I’m at now: ten courses of the eventual fourteen pieced together. The cottons have no relationship other than the one I’ve imposed on them. Some of them are French prints, some scraps from intricate quilts I’ve made in the past, and some of the fabric comes from an unfinished dress begun by a friend and passed along to me because she thought I’d like the print and might want to cut up some of the usable areas.

This morning, as I sewed lengths of squares together, I found myself thinking about “Euclid’s Orchard” and I think I might be ready to work on the essay again.  Something about the quiet labour of fitting pieces together, aligning their edges, trying to make the seams even, looking for a way to highlight a colour — the punch of yellow in this simple patchwork quilt has me remembering the sunlight on the orchard that is central to the essay…

If you haven’t got something to put it in, food will escape you–even something as uncombative and unresourceful as an oat. You put as many as you can into your stomach while they are handy, that being the primary container; but what about tomorrow morning when you wake up and it’s cold and raining and wouldn’t it be good to have just a few handfuls of oats to chew on and give little Oom to make her shut up, but how do you get more than one stomachful and one handful home? So you get up and go to the damned soggy oat patch in the rain, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if you had something to put Baby Oo Oo in so that you could pick the oats with both hands? A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bright quilt to keep away winter’s chill? Blues, yellows, and a long diagonal of red, bright as berries and necessary as blood.

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redux: old postcards from Ruby Lake

In anticipation of a family visit later this month, I’m reposting this, from 2017. Some things change and some things never change. Thank goodness.

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We’ve lived near Ruby Lake since 1980. Well, that’s not quite right. We bought our property in 1980, began building our house in 1981, when Forrest was two weeks old (we lived in a tent while building…), and moved in on John’s birthday in 1982, just a month before Brendan was born. But I have to say the property and the lake have been our home territory since we first came to camp on a little bluff on Ruby Lake while looking at land with a real estate agent in early 1980, just a few months after we got married.

I loved swimming in the lake. The water is clean, though some summers the duck itch is irritating. So are the big boats, though the ones with (is it?) open-exhaust systems are not permitted; not permitted, but no one enforces it. And so young men (they are almost always young men) like to tear around the lake, pulling each other on skis and innertubes. The lake doesn’t have a lot of public access so the areas that are accessible are often very busy now. It didn’t used to be that way. When we first came to swim in Ruby Lake, there was a rough track down to the shore at the place where the Regional District has now made a family-friendly park. You walked through hardhack and ocean spray and entered the water amid drifts of wild mint.

To get around the busy nature of the park, where we often couldn’t find a space for our family, we’d take picnics out to one of the small islands in the boat we bought with an income tax return when the kids were small. I wrote about those picnics in “Love Song”, included in Mother Tongue Publishing’s The Summer Book:

Out in the boat with a picnic to eat on the island in the lake, the island we call White Pine for the little grove on its high point, or else “Going to Greece” for the scent of yarrow and dry grass. I spread out a bamboo mat on the spine of hill and brush ants from my legs while one child dives from the rocks and another swims underwater. The third is learning to start the boat motor, pulling the cord and adjusting the choke.

This morning I was looking for old photographs and came across a few that brought those summers vividly to mind:

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You could sit on that grassy spine of the island and the world was as you wanted it.

postcard 1

There are manzanitas growing near the water and some scrubby pines on the rise and in spring, chocolate lilies and death camas. The scent of yarrow. Snakes, turtles.

For the past few summers, I haven’t done much swimming. By the time the sun is high and it’s hot, the lake is so busy. The prospect of finding a place among the others on the shore is daunting. John goes every day, late afternoon, and has a favourite place away from the beach. He swims off some rocks. But I like to ease into the water (I never learned to dive) and I’d rather stay home.

But last week I thought, Why not swim early? And why not? All winter we swam in the local pool, in part to deal with some side-effects of the health crisis I faced last fall (autoimmune stuff going on in one knee), and I loved being in the water again. Loved the buoyancy, the lightness of being, the opportunity for long meditative thinking as I swam lengths in the warm water. So after the first round of watering, after the tomato plants have been given their drink, and the roses too, we head down to the park. No more hardhack right at the shore. No more mint. But also a kind of blessed quiet. No self-respecting jet-boater is up before 9.  We enter the green water and listen to crows overhead. This morning there were a few people camping in the parking lot. A motorhome. A van. A small pick-up truck with a tent in the back. Two motorcycles with a pup tent between them. As we walked down to the beach, a guy was standing by the water. His entire body was tattooed. He told us how beautiful the lake was, that he was going to go swimming, and that he and his partner had arrived too late for the campsite at Klein Lake so they came back to the park and put their tent up by their bikes. I knew John was remembering his own first glimpse of Ruby Lake, in the early 1970s, with a girlfriend— they also arrived on motorbikes after dark and camped in a clearing off the highway. When they woke the next morning, they saw the lake below them. He never forgot its beauty. That’s why we’re here.

In a few weeks, some of the kids (and one grandson) will arrive for a week. They spend as much time in the water as they can. There will be towels everywhere, and the smell of wet hair. I can’t wait.

How long can a girl dive before her father accords her a perfect score, how many times can a boy circumnavigate the island with the throttle on low? Another practises the dead man’s float. Three years, or six. Drift on a raft under the low-growing spirea and bog laurel, count turtles on logs, crush a few leaves of wild mint in your hands while the years accumulate. Nine years, or twelve. ( from “Love Song”)

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“One apple tree remains under my care.”

merton beauty

One apple tree remains under my care. It’s a Merton Beauty, bought as a tiny plant at a produce store in Sechelt. An organic gardener had grafted interesting varieties to dwarf rootstock, and I chose one almost at random. Merton Beauty is a cross between Ellison’s Orange and Cox’s Orange Pippin. For years, ours sat sort of sullenly in a little circle of stones near the garden shed, caged in chicken wire. I’d water it, give it the occasional mulch of compost and drink of fish emulsion. A few frail blossoms, an inch or two of new growth. Then it produced some fruit that was delicious. The information I’ve read about this variety stresses the aromatic flavor of the apples—their spicy taste, redolent of pears, cinnamon, aniseed. I can’t say I noticed those particular notes, but the skins were pretty, russeted at the shoulders, and the flesh was crisp, with a true flavor of apple. Not the empty watery taste of many supermarket apples, sprayed, waxed, gassed, and stored for months.

–from Euclid’s Orchard

redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

5A

Note: This post is from March, 2014. I was thinking my way into a novella and I was reading, in some cases re-reading, the novels (and novellas) of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. They are the muses of the novella I eventually wrote, The Marriage of Rivers, and I am so delighted to tell you that Palimpsest Press will publish it next spring (2020). The contract has been signed, sealed, and delivered! This press, like Mother Tongue Publishing, is devoted to “…poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography.” And their books are objects of beauty in themselves.

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I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

twirling

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My father, on his small tricycle, c. 1929, his dog watching the road. I think of him often, particularly when I see photographs of my grandchildren. How certain gestures, features, remain over time, in the intricate mathematics of inheritance.

I consider the ghost of a child’s hand in an ultrasound image, another of a baby’s spine,my father on a tricycle,in a little metal car, grey, grey, the propped coffin on a bench in 1923, on the stair by a house I am uncertain is the one my father spent his
childhood in or an earlier one that burned. Is it the house built by Joseph Yopek or a later house?

—from “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2019

This morning, 3 of my grandchildren in a cafe in Ottawa (the 4th still too small to sit on a stool unassisted). They remind me of their own fathers (my sons) and they remind me of my brothers as children, twirling on stools in cafes as we drove across Canada to Halifax, and back. Twirling and twirling until, dizzy with movement, they’d fall or be forcibly removed from the stool, and scolded.

at Bobby's Table

the night wild with their song

crossing over

Last night I was awake again and from my warm place in the bed, I heard the coyotes. They were far away but one of them (the male, I think) was howling and one of them (the female) was yipping. Yesterday, on our walk down the driveway (we can’t drive up in this snow so leave the car by the highway), we saw the whole story of how the coyotes had spent their morning. It had snowed overnight so we knew the tracks were fresh. They’d been up near the house (which explains why the cat was skittish). One of them stopped to pee. Above is where they were ambling down the driveway, their tracks crossing. Sometimes you could tell that one was following almost in the other’s footprints. Sometimes they walked on separate sides of the driveway. By the time they reached the old orchard, they were walking side by side.

lives

They are presences in our lives and even in our sleep. And in my memory, as I think of the years that we’ve heard them, seen them, the night wild with their song.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing o be interested in this early in the season.

—from “Euclid’s Orchard”, published in Euclid’s Orchard & Other Essays, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

 

It’s all in the song.

pup

Last night, we’d just fallen asleep when the room was filled with noise. Coyote noise. I think it was the estrus call of the female and it went on and on. Then was answered. Most years we hear the courtship music of the coyotes and later in the season, we’ll hear the resulting family song.

Coyotes weren’t around when we first moved to the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, they were on the lower end, then people were reporting them in Halfmoon Bay, and by 2005, we were seeing them regularly. We think of them as part of the landscape and it’s surprising to remember that they haven’t always been here. Or at least not in our time. In Mammals of British Columbia (Eder and Pattie), there’s an interesting note that David Thompson wrote regularly about fox and wolf sightings as he traveled west but he didn’t mention coyotes. They’re certainly thriving now, in cities as well as wilderness.

They arrived on our land around the time our children had moved away. I’ve thought about this a lot. How we’ve heard their courtship, seen the young pups, heard the family singing in late summer, and then in winter watched the parents crossing the old clearing where our orchard used to be. When I see them, I think of my family, its long residency among these trees. I wonder if the coyotes think of their own grown offspring.

I wrote about coyotes and family and mathematics in an essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”. It became the title of a book of essays released in 2017 by the wonderful Mother Tongue Publishing.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad, dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed, but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.

Mostly coyotes are monogamous. Their life span is 10-14 years. I don’t know how likely it is that the pair we heard last night is the original pair. But perhaps one of the offspring and its mate, drawn to the old territory?

So it happens again. Courtship, mating, birth, nurture. It’s all in the song. In August, in moonlight, we’ll hear it again, will recognize in the beautiful harmonies something of our own deep story.

Braid groups, harmonic analysis: The whole is greater than the part. Euclid’s 5th Axiom

A midsummer evening, clear moonlight. Down in the orchard, the coyotes have gone under the fence with their young. How many? I’ve seen one, heard several others. I’ve imagined them on the soft grass, tumbling like my children used to play, rolling down the slope over tiny sweet wild strawberries, over the heart-shaped violet leaves, the deep pockets of moss, while around them snakes hid under the lupines. But now in the quiet, I am shaken out of my dreaming because a coyote is singing a long, low passage. A lump forms in my throat as I look out into the night, the sky dusty with stars, a three-quarter moon hanging so perfect over the hidden lake that I think of a stage set, an arranged scene created by strings and wishful thinking. A jagged line of dark horizon and the vertical trees, the line of them rising, then descending as the bar changes, a page of music, the arpeggiated chords, the implied bass line. A pause, a comma of silence. Another coyote joins in, then at least two more. It’s a part-song, a madrigal. Each voice is on pitch, but one is low, another high, and several braid themselves in and around the melody line.