little stab


Sashiko is a Japanese term meaning “little stabs”. It’s a running stitch used in embroidery or quilting, a running stitch, useful for structural work: repairing and strengthening clothing and other textiles. I’ve been making quilts over the past year in which I use a running stitch and heavy cotton thread, almost string really, and I love to see the results. I love to feel the results, a very satisfying texture as my needle binds three layers together — the top of the quilt (often a heavy linen I’ve dyed with indigo), the batting (and I mostly use organic cotton for this), and the backing. For the first little bit, my fingers get sore. Over the summer, for example, they are used to weeding, turning taps, hanging laundry out. The needles are often reluctant to pass through the layers easily, though I’ve discovered that there are actually special needles for sashiko, polished steel with fine grooves running their length. I’m going to order some. In the meantime I have some sturdy chenille needles. They’re sharp, with big eyes to hold the heavy thread.

The photograph above is a corner of the quilt I made for my grandson Arthur’s 3rd birthday in October. He was visiting with his parents and brother from Ottawa and so I snuck into his room and put the quilt on his bed while he was having breakfast. When he went into his room, he saw what I’d made him: a single-cloth bedcover with a loose spiral of salmon taking up 2/3s of the top and then 3 constellations outlined in shell buttons across the top 1/3. I used deep blue cotton for the body of the quilt and saffron yellow to border it. With John’s help, I chose constellations visible in our western sky on the night of Arthur’s birth: Cassiopeia, Orion, and Cygnus. Stars and salmon: constants here in our wild corner of the earth. We sent Arthur binoculars for Christmas and he told me on the phone that he’d seen Cassiopeia on Christmas night. We saw Orion on December 29th, on our way home from a party, and it reminded me that we took Arthur on a starry walk, as John once took our children, just before bedtime on the last night of his visit. Orion was stretched out across the sky, the 3 stars of his belt as clear as anything, and Cygnus was flying the Milky Way. I love to think of him sleeping under the quilt that remembers the fish in a nearby creek and the stars that help to guide them home.

A little stab is a good thing to think of this time of year when the months wait to unfold in front of me, the baskets of fabric wait for their moment, and the needles with their generous eyes are willing to carry thread in and out to strengthen the structure.

a dog in the heavens

I’ve been dreaming about dogs, some unfamiliar but also the dogs who have lived with us, whom we’ve loved. Friday, the English sheepdog cross, with one stiff leg she used like a rudder and a tangle of curls like dreadlocks. Lily, the Lab cross with a bit of wolf, who was brave and dignified, and who was part of our pack for 13 years. I wrote about her in an essay, “Phantom Limb”, and sometimes I still see her out of the corner of my eye, ambling across the grass with her nose in the air. Our last dog was Tiger, a golden retriever cross, who was born under a log near Ruby Lake to a crazy mother and a placid father, who was also her half-brother. That explained much about Tiger. She was sweet but “off” in some ways. When she was young and there was thunder or fireworks, she’d high-tail it down to her natal log. Never mind that her mother had moved on long ago and the woman who’d lived in the trailer by the log had also moved on. I still see Tiger, too, lying in sunlight on the driveway or else staring into the distance.

This week, a highlight of the night skies has been Canis Major, the Great Dog, with its bright star Sirius. This constellation was first charted (I think) by Ptolemy in the second century and is part of the myth of Orion, representing one of his hunting dogs. In the sky this week, you can see Canis Major following Orion as he chases the Seven Sisters or Pleiades across the heavens. I’ve always loved Orion and he graces the sky just to the south of my bedroom these nights, the three brilliant stars of his belt leading the eye to the Pleiades, who are a bit smudgy right now.

And is it a coincidence that the coyotes have been singing their hearts out this week? Last week they were mating — I think this is the pair that have denned to the south of our house for several years. We’ve seen them both, and at least one offspring, during the summer. A few summers ago, one half-grown pup appeared at 10 a.m, regular as clockwork, as we drank our coffee on the upper deck in August. This pup even inspected the dog-house — this was summer after Tiger died — and sat briefly on its threshold, as if to contemplate the settled life. It was easy to see that dogs and coyotes shared a common ancestor, though I understand that this is complicated, involving theories about divergences — some dog breeds can be traced back, through DNA sequencing, to ancient populations in the Middle East and Africa. And I think German Shepherds (Lily had some of this) are more closely related to wolves. Lily would play with Tiger when the latter was a puppy and one of their games involved Tiger trying to get Lily to regurgitate food for her. They went through all the motions of what must have been a deep reflexive prompt and response. It was like a window into very ancient history.

Last week, mating. This week, singing a beautiful clear song for the joy of it. And are the coyote songs causing my dreams of dogs? Or is it simply time to take the next step in bringing a new dog home? John spent last summer restoring that dog-house. It has a new floor, a new roof, and its cedar siding has been freshly stained. And the little sign Forrest made for Lily, Cave canem, is still legible above the opening.

canis major