“I thought it meant something and wrote into my notebook “Morning glory” and the date, July 10th, 1989.”

nicola summer

Yesterday we were driving down the Coast to do errands in Sechelt and we were talking about writing as we so often do. I was remembering the years when I didn’t, couldn’t, write, the years when our children were small, when I was up in the night with them for one reason or another, when my life was full to the brim with cooking, laundry, driving to and from pre-school, then kindergarten (because we live off the beaten track, the school bus wouldn’t come all the way out to our place to drop one child off after a half-day of kindergarten). I put the thought of writing aside for about 5 years, although it was probably more like 8. John wondered when it was that I began to find my way back to it and I knew exactly the moment, and in fact it wasn’t back, it was forward, forward to new territory, a new landscape, because I’d been waiting to write poetry again—I’d published two collections in my early twenties, and then a chapbook—but found instead that prose was what was available to me. I began with a few sentences:

I’d never noticed the way the fences of bleak houses lining the freeway out of Burnaby and Surrey were draped with morning glory, green leaves and the white trumpets covering chain-link and boards indiscriminately. Some of the houses had gardens but many had nothing but morning glory—it was mid-morning as we drove out—and I remembered a house I’d lived in as a child, for a few months only, until something better came along.

With those sentences, jotted into my notebook as we drove east from Vancouver towards the Nicola Valley, I found myself remembering and seeing two periods of time simultaneously, layered and entwined as the plants that were my guides:

The house made my mother cry. I didn’t know why then but I do now, remembering the paint flaking away from the board siding, the kernels of mice shit in the closets and cupboards, and the remnants of peonies and roses overgrown with morning glory[…]These houses brought it back and I could imagine the smell of the morning glory, sweet and rampant, bees deep in the white throats.

As I sat in the car, looking out, I was imagining myself back and I was also anticipating a period of time in a landscape I was learning to love. The sentences were leading me to a place and the place was not just physical, it was also deeply generative. On the trip we were taking to the Nicola Valley that summer, everything I was doing and seeing became part of that layering. We’d camped in the valley every summer and I knew I loved the dry air, the hills of bunchgrass, the scent of Ponderosa pine and sage, the sound of Clark’s nutcrackers as we woke in our tent in the mornings.

across nicola lake

I loved swimming in the lake and then sitting in the sun while pollen fell from the pines onto my bare shoulders. When I wrote the sentences that began the essay that became “Morning Glory”, I remember thinking, Now I have to get everything in, I have to find a way to let everything have its place on the page. I walked through the small cemetery at the Murray Church in the townsite of Nicola, recording the names on the stones, trying to determine relationships, waves of diseases (reflected in clusters of deaths), pondering whom might be responsible for planting the clumps of iris, the tiny field bindweed. The excitement was the same that I’d always felt when I wrote poetry but I was discovering a different relationship to the page itself. I could stretch out my sentences, I could compound the imagery, use the measures of music—a longer musical line than I’d been able to work with in my poems—and I could also use the strategies I’d learned in the years of writing poems. Refrains, elliptical language, dense clusters of phrases, emotional acuity—those weren’t lost to me after all, as I thought they were when I’d lie in my bed at night wondering if I’d ever write anything again.

But then I could, I could write, though not in quite the same way. I wasn’t the same, though. My husband and I built a house ourselves, I’d given birth to three children, made a garden, and somehow what I wanted writing to do for me, with me, wasn’t what I’d needed it to do when I was a dreamy (and troubled) young woman testing waters often a little dark for her to truly enter with her whole self. Or that’s how it seems to me now when I read the poems I wrote then.

The last sentence of the first paragraph of “Morning Glory” interests me now:

I thought it meant something and wrote into my notebook “Morning glory” and the date, July 10th, 1989.

By late fall, I had a draft of that essay, the first one I wrote, and I kept writing them, writing them, until I had a collection, Red Laredo Boots, and then another, Phantom Limb, and then another (linked), Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and another, Euclid’s Orchard, and (recently completed) Blue Portugal. Now when I wake at night, it’s not to wonder if I will ever write again but how to keep up with what I have in my mind to do. That first essay ends with almost a premonition, it almost anticipates the last essay I wrote, “The River Door”, about my grandmother’s experience of the Spanish flu in 1918:

In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of white pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all.

murray church

knocking on heaven’s door

near stump lake

Driving up Highway 5A towards Kamloops, after lunch at the Quilchena Hotel, I felt my heart open up, my lungs expand. The days have been full and I haven’t taken time to pay attention to the sky lately. Haven’t noticed grass. I am not a techie and wouldn’t know what to do with an IPod if I had one. (I don’t even have a cell phone.) But years ago, when our internet connection was still powered by hamsters on a large wheel (too slow for any kind of music download) and Angelica was at UVic with a high-speed connection, I asked her to find some songs I wanted to burn onto a cd (see? That’s me operating at my highest skill level…). She did and then I sort of forgot I had the cd. But it’s perfect for road trips and so it was our musical accompaniment to Highway 5A this afternoon. “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” as we passed the townsite of Upper Nicola where much of my first novel, Sisters of Grass, is set and I remembered all the times we camped nearby, stayed in the Courthouse with friends for extended weekends, watched our children grow. Their shadows still linger on the hills beyond Nicola Lake. It was where they wanted their birthdays, weekends in every season, and even now I’m plotting for a way to show my grandchildren the erratics in the field on the road to the campsite, the cows in the fields that all have calves at their heels or else tugging at their milkbags, and maybe buy those grandbabies each a pair of cowboy boots at the Quilchena Store. (I sussed them out today and they’re beautiful.) Then, approaching Stump Lake, it was Bruce Cockburn:

Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

And as a non-Christian, it might sound hypocritical to say that as we drove the last stretch, near Knutsford, I felt like I was knocking on heaven’s door. Or I wanted to knock, to see what might still be inside.





postcard, the Nicola Valley


On a clear day, you can see forever. And this is what it looks like. Suede hills, aspens just turning,Ponderosa pines so particular and iconic that you could look at each one and never think you knew pines in general. The scent of sage. The sound of magpies. An osprey overlooking Stump Lake, the waters green and dusted with the hatch of some insect that had a few flyfishers excited as well as the fish themselves, mouthing the surface of the lake.

And did I say the other day that the road up through the Fraser Canyon was my favourite on earth? Today it’s 5A, from Kamloops to Merritt, winding by the lakes, the creeks, the roads leading off to remote ranches, the Lieutenant-Governor’s home ranch at the head of Nicola Lake in good shape despite her absence, the store at Quilchena as enticing as ever (and this time I had to resist tiny cowboy boots, two-tone, with sensible heels; though if a grandchild asked for a pair, I’d go back in a heartbeat…). So I’m fickle about roads. So I’m contradictory. I have as my model in this the wonderful Walt Whitman, a poet I always think of in the kingdom of grass (lines of his thread through my novel Sisters of Grass…):

The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

the blues were annual


Sometimes memory plays its own strange tricks, so that a moment like this brings back all the times I read books to my children, all the books (even this book, Curious George) , all the weight of their bodies on my knees, in my heart. How can the years have gone so quickly, how is it that I hardly noticed them passing? I think of that beautiful Kate Wolff song, “Across the Great Divide”, appropriate to where I am now (Ottawa, far from home):

I’ve been walking in my sleep

counting troubles instead of counting sheep,

where the years went, I can’t say.

I just turned, and they’ve gone away.


I’ve been sifting through the layers

of dusty books and faded papers.

They tell a story I used to know

and it was one that happened so long ago.


And yesterday, hiking the Eagle Nest Trail above Calabogie Lake, the scent of pines (though not Ponderosas), the sound of chipmunks, and I was back in the Nicola Valley with my children, my husband, on one of our family camping trips, the dry air and pollen making our skin mysterious to the touch. Passing the little graveyard in Burnstown, I thought of the Murray churchyard in the old Nicola townsite, the stories I could almost understand as I wrote down the inscriptions, the epitaphs. They were tangled up with my own family stories, the houses we’d lived in, my mother’s attempts to make each one a home as quickly as possible.

In my notebook, “Morning glory” and the date, July 10, 1989. In later gardens, my mother planted a cultivar of morning glory called Heavenly Blue, perhaps forgetting what the white form had done to the roses and peonies. The blues were annual and I don’t remember if they were invasive. Seeds of wild flowers come in the droppings of birds and mammals, hair and fur, the clothing of those passing through. In one corner of the graveyard at Nicola, a tendril of pink field bindweed among the small stinging cacti. In an enclosure of while pickets, a woman who died in childbirth and the daughter who survived her for nineteen days, dying on her mother’s birthday, October 31, 1881, wild iris spreading over their little field of sadness. A young boy nearby, sleeping under the gentle cover of traveller’s joy. God speed them all. –from “Morning Glory”, in Red Laredo Boots (New Star Books, 1996)

late roses for a 30th birthday

It’s my daughter Angelica’s 30th birthday today. I was 30 when I gave birth to her, our last child. My memories of that autumn are happy ones. I’d bathe her in a plastic tub on the dining table with sunlight streaming in the big window. She loved her father to hold her on his stomach as he watched television — he’d pat her back and sing little songs to her. And her brothers were fascinated by her and quite impressed that she knew them well enough to bring them a special gift home from the hospital — a Playmobil gas station, complete with tiny parts that all had to be assembled in secret by parents and grandparents late into the night before they discovered it the next morning.

Having a daughter has been one of the great pleasures of my life (as is having sons, but the pleasures are different, something I’ll try to analyze another time). I’ve had access to a thread that runs from girlhood to womanhood and back. As a writer this has been so valuable. When I was writing my first novel, Sisters of Grass, Angelica was about ten. And when it was finally published, she was 16, nearly the age of the novel’s protagonist Margaret Stuart, who is a young woman living in the Nicola Valley in 1906. That period intrigued me — so much of the valley still retains traces of that time: names on gravestones, old buildings, a legacy of ranches and settlement. And Margaret Stuart is in turn fascinated with the cist burials she finds evidence of on the Douglas Plateau, particularly an incised bone drinking tube which would have been buried with a pubescent girl for her afterlife. Our family camped in the valley in those years and I felt as though I was seeing the world through a series of shifting transparencies, shapes visible now, and now, and now, and then fading as something else replaced them for a time. I know now that this was the awakening of the part of my imagination that allows me to write fiction but then I was in a constant state of wonder.

In the epilogue to the novel, I meditate on memory and the apprehension of those transparencies:

What secrets do the hills contain in their suede hollows, what mysteries are lifted from the stones in the unbearable stillness of morning? Which is the way where light dwelleth?and as for darkness, where is the place thereof? My daughter has rolled into the grassy hollow of the kikuli pit at Nicola Lake, closing her eyes as she imagines the life of its ghostly household in the time we nearly know as we sit on the shore of the lake. Looking up, she sees a fresh moon in the daylight sky, hears the girls singing wherever they might be — in memory, in photographs, crumbling bones under a cairn of boulders, a little necklace of elk teeth at what was once a youthful throat, in the heart, the imagination. You remind me a girl I once watched picking flowers. On the shoulders of the young girls, golden pollen; in their hair, a halo of seeds, ruffled by the breeze. If we are very quiet, they might sing to us, dry husks in the wind, dust of stars.

That line from Sappho is something I’d like to say to my daughter now. You remind me of a girl I once watched picking flowers. And here’s a bouquet of late “Mme. Alfred Carriere” roses, as sweetly scented as anything on earth, to say Happy Birthday, Angelica!

birthday roses

Last days of August

Returning to a beloved landscape is always risky. For nearly thirty years, my family has been drawn to the Nicola Valley. We camped at Monck Park on Nicola Lake every summer and often in the fall, too, occasionally in the company of my parents. One memorable evening, my parents stayed with our children in the campsite, helping them to toast marshmallows and then putting them to bed in our tent, while John and I went over to the Quilchena Hotel for dinner. I remember delicious beef and a bottle of sinewy Australian cabernet sauvignon. Always there were stars, the sky storied with them. We’d wake to Clark’s nutcrackers kraaaa-ing in the fragrant Ponderosa pines around the tent and everything we’d brought was golden with pollen.

We go back to that country as often as possible. It’s haunted. Old buildings, dry and weathered, provide small echoes of the past, and the kikuli pits on Nicola Lake have their own story of winters in the shadow of the volcanic hill above. Even when we don’t see them, there are always horses.

This time of year, the rabbit brush is in bloom and everywhere fields are ridged with new-cut hay, raked and waiting to be bailed. We spent three nights at the Quilchena Hotel with Forrest and Manon, driving the road to Douglas Lake, to Nicola Lake, to Lundbom Lake, watching for bears (we saw one near Marquart Lake), coyotes, and hoping for the creak of sandhill cranes as they move south for the winter, scribbling the sky with their elegant farewell.

Forrest, Manon, and I went riding one morning, Sarah the wrangler taking us up the hill behind the hotel to see the old cabins near the copper mine, and pointing out the new golf course, the housing development on the other side of Nicola Lake, the cluster of new houses below the highway leading to Kamloops. How the heart resists change! I squinted my eyes in order to see the vista I’d always known –- lake-shore fringed with wild roses, hills soft with sage.

On our last night, we drove up the Pennask Lake road to watch the sun set. It happened so quickly that we were caught in darkness on a grassy slope some distance from the car. But this moon helped us find out way back and best of all, there were three small owls on the road, maybe flammulated owls, eating grasshoppers on the warm pavement.