The other day, I was doing outdoor chores in flip-flops. A light sweater (and shirt-sleeves as I stacked a cord of sweet-smelling fir in the woodshed). But then yesterday, driving home from Sechelt, there was snow by Trout Lake, just a quick flurry, and by the time we neared home, we could see the mountain behind us (Mount Hallowell) was white with new snow. It’s so beautiful. Right now, the clarity of snow and blue sky reminded me of one of my favourite winter poems, though winter is still officially a month and a half away. It’s by Du Fu, that wise sage of the Tang Dynasty.
Beginning of Winter
I sag with age: these martial robes are tight.
Coming home, cold’s colors deepen.
Fishing boats work up the rushing stream.
A hunter’s fire marks the high perched grove.
Long as there’s sun, I drink by leisure’s pools.
When sorrows come, I’ll chant of ancient heroes.
Spears and halberds still can’t be laid by.
To stay, or to serve, which way
Does the heart go from here?
We know autumn is coming. The sun comes over Mount Hallowell an hour and a half later than it did when we drank our coffee on the upper deck and thought about all the things we would accomplish in summer. So much of it is still undone, at least from my perspective. Garden unweeded, relationships untended, some of them. But the pantry shelves are lined with preserves, the tomato plants are still producing their beautiful red fruits, I’ve filled a basket with squash,
and the flowers bloom as though frost was simply a rumour — as it is at this point in the year.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
(from “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur)
On Long Beach the other day, I thought of the way I wanted to write the novella I’ve recently begun, a reflective (and reflexive) book about a brother and a sister and a river. It will pay homage to writers who’ve explored the same territory — Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. I’m thinking of Lytton and the place where the Thompson River meets the Fraser, how it looks this time of year, the sumac turning red and the rabbitbrush vivid yellow on the roadside between Lytton and Spences Bridge. The beautiful changes. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something — a season, a story. And to feel the cadences of both begin to pull me in.
This is the time of year when I realize how swiftly summer passed and that we are now on the long fall into winter. I was in the kitchen and suddenly realized there was a beam of sunlight on the tile floor. 9:33, and the sun has just come up over Mount Hallowell’s shoulder. In full summer, it rises closer to 8 and by this time in the morning, the tomatoes on the upper deck have enjoyed its warmth for more than an hour. Their bounty has been amazing. Most days I pick a big bowl of tomatoes and I’ve pickled five pints of the colourful cherry tomatoes (yellow, orange, red, pink, almost black), made seven pints of salsa, frozen more, eaten bushels out of hand or in salad (caprese is my favourite, esp. when I can find the Natural Pastures Mozzarella di Bufala from the Fairburn Farm water buffalo herd in the Cowichan Valley). Our basil has been glorious. The other day I processed a huge amount of it with olive oil and some of the Georgian garlic I grew this summer and then froze the puree in tart tins (saved year after year for just this purpose). Some people freeze these “basil bombs” in ice-cube trays but I’ve found the little tart tins are more user-friendly. After filling them, I set them on a cookie sheet and freeze them until they’re solid, then tumble them into large zip-lock bags where they’re easy to find in winter when I want to flavour soup or add cheese and pine nuts for pesto. I did twenty the other day and will do as many again today. I’ve also made cartons of pesto to freeze and leaves went into the pickled tomatoes.
So this is the paradox — summer ends but we find ways to extend its pleasures in the dark corners of our freezers or pantry shelves. In winter, to open a jar of pickled cherry tomatoes and say, Oh, remember picking them in early September, remember the heat, remember the tree-frog settled at the roots.
I don’t think we’ll see the sun today. The sky is grey, the air is cold, and there’s new snow on Mount Hallowell.
I took out the compost and found one rose blooming on the other side of the fence keeping the vegetable area safe from deer. When I tipped sunflower seeds into the bird feeder, two chickadees alighted on my wrist.
We’ll keep the fire burning, grateful for its warmth. We have fir for its heat, and alder, too. Cedar kindling to make everything catch quickly. Remember the rhyme by Mother Goose?
Oak-logs will warm you well,
That are old and dry;
Logs of pine will sweetly smell
But the sparks will fly.
Birch-logs will burn too fast,
Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn-logs are good to last –
Catch them in the fall.
Holly-logs will burn like wax,
You may burn them green;
Elm-logs like to smoldering flax,
No flame to be seen.
Beech-logs for winter time,
Yew-logs as well;
Green elder-logs it is a crime
For any man to sell.
Pear-logs and apple-logs,
They will scent your room,
Cherry-logs across the bogs
Smell like flower of the broom.
Ash-logs, smooth and grey,
Burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way –
Worth their weight in gold.
Later we’ll switch on all the strings of lights around the windows, the chili pepper lights around the front door, and make sure the candles are ready. No day in the year is darker but that means that tomorrow the sun will begin its slow return.
This morning the snow was very low on Mount Hallowell’s shoulder, the dark trees dusted with white. The weather people tell us the chances of a white Christmas are low but the world seems very festive right now. Frost has a way of making even the commonplace look seasonal — silver-edged branches, rocks, and the cold clean smell of it.
We were in Vancouver for a day or two, meeting our son Brendan for dinner on Thursday night (and how lovely that was, eating beef tenderloin in green peppercorn sauce at Al Porto, drinking the gorgeous Desert Hills Gamay Noir with it), doing some Christmas shopping. I like to shop locally and most of the gifts we’re giving are from businesses here on the Coast, but it was fun to search out a few things that I can’t get here. I like to go to a particular place (which will remain unnamed because it’s a bit dreadful in some ways) for hazelnut oil and other flavourings (I’ve found several different vanilla extracts there, one from Madagascar and one from Tahiti) and when I cruised the kitchen area on Friday morning, I found a tagine for 19.00, reduced from 59.00. I’ve had my eye on tagines for a few years, never actually buying one but hoping to find an inexpensive version to have here in my kitchen. Years ago I saw a shop in Montreal which had a lot of them in the window, all handpainted and all beautiful. But I was travelling with my small suitcase and couldn’t think how I’d get one home. After Forrest and Manon’s wedding in Ottawa, I wanted one even more. They arranged for a favourite restaurant of theirs — Chez Fatima in Gatineau — to do the food for the reception and the tagine sang of Morocco, its spices and bright colours.
So this particular cooking vessel isn’t handpainted and it’s not particularly beautiful — if I’d had a choice, black and orange would be fairly far down the list. But this afternoon I seasoned it by soaking it, oiling it, then putting it in the oven for two hours. And then I dredged chicken in spices, added onion, unsulphured apicots, preserved lemons from the jar of sunlight (see my post for October 27), and green olives and let the whole thing cook for an hour and half. I steamed some couscous and voila! Dinner!
I was watering the cucumber boxes this morning, standing with the hose nozzle on “shower”, letting the soft water fall over the lush plants. It wasn’t until the tree frog jumped that I realized I’d been noticing that there was something on one of the leaves.
This must be one of this year’s hatchlings. Yesterday I was watering tomatoes on the upper deck when a larger tree frog jumped from the plant down to the saucer but when I returned with the camera, it was nowhere to be seen.
Of course I’m wondering what else I’ve missed by not paying attention. The opening of these lilies, for one. The other day they were buds. This morning, late summer brides.
I have observed, though, that the bear scat is full of blackberry seeds so that means it’s time to go berry-picking for jam. And I’ve also noticed that the sun is different, passing from Mount Hallowell where it rises to Texada Island where it sets on a more southerly trajectory than in high summer. Our light is different, more golden and diffused. The nights are cooler and the air smells of salal berries, autumn’s wine.
This morning I was stirring a big batch of jam, early, before the sun came over Mount Hallowell. It’s always great to have a good supply of jam for winter but of course the berries ripen during the hottest part of summer. We freeze many pounds of raspberries and blackberries, the latter from the trail we walk on regularly up one shoulder of Mount Hallowell, and the former from our garden. But the freezer is full. Sockeye salmon, many bags of raspberries, garlic scapes — summer’s bounty. So jam it is. We grow a luscious raspberry cultivar called Willamette. Its season is about 4 weeks and those weeks came late this year. Right about now I’d be picking blackberries and the first apples but both those are at least three weeks away. This morning’s jam was a combination of Willamette berries, a large raspberry that is vigourous and slightly tart, and some wild black raspberries, Rubus leucodermis, or blackcaps, brought by a friend last week. These are a treasure, found in clearcuts, old burn sites, and open forests. I like to graze on them while hiking up the Malaspina trail but I have to confess I’ve never picked enough to preserve. I love how they darken the colour of this jam and I know how we’ll enjoy opening jar in late November, marvelling at how the smell of summer is preserved. It won’t matter that hot jam spattered my wrists as I ladled it into jars this morning and that mosquitoes that had found the open doors kept stinging my bare shoulders.
Some mornings feel like accumulations of every morning I’ve known. The fire in the woodstove smelling of cedar, the perfection of the first cup of coffee, the cool air as I walk out to water new seedlings. Last night I heard an owl very near the house and I hoped it wasn’t feasting on the nestlings by my study window. This morning the robin parents are busy taking worms back to the nest so that’s a relief. Birds, flowers, the sight of the sun coming over Mount Hallowell about twenty minutes ago, beginning the long journey to the mountains we can see in the west, beyond Texada Island, where it slides into darkness later and later each evening, an accumulation of every sunrise, every dusk.
When I went out to begin the watering, I looked up to see the wisteria, a pale cloud above the patio. It blooms twice. The first, just happening, is silvery — the flowers open first, a haze of them, and then the new leaves. The second flowering is later, in July, and the blossoms are hidden among the lush deep green leaves so that we barely see them, though the scent of them in early morning or late evening is delicious. We have three wisterias, two of them brought by John’s mum many years ago as rooted offshoots from hers in her Nanaimo garden (and I think she brought the original cutting from John’s grandmother’s garden in Suffolk). Our third wisteria is one I layered from this one and it grows over the western deck, filling in a trellis also claimed by grapevine. It’s lovely to sit there in a green shade on summer evenings. I have a new string of chili pepper lights to loop through the stems…
And the lilacs! Most of ours come from an old plant in my parents’ garden in Royal Oak. It was a common lilac, very hardy, and each year they’d dig away the little shoots that came up around the main trunk. It occurred to me that I should take them back with me and so now I have both a sense of continuity when they bloom, and also loss.
And here’s sweet woodruff by the woodshed
and a pot of tulips like small planets in their pot in a corner of the deck.