“Like the symbol for infinity.”

In other Junes, we’ve taken road trips, driving through our favourite landscapes. Windows open, music, stops to look at wildflowers. I feel restless this morning, remembering, but somehow I don’t feel brave enough to leave home. Not yet.

Looking back, I remember the Bridesville-Rock Creek road, how we turned off Highway 3 in 2013 on our way to Grand Forks and meandered through soft grasslands, sweet-scented pines, bluebirds on the fenceposts, and everywhere sticky geranium, upland larkspur, old man’s whiskers. We stopped to watch yellow-headed blackbirds in a small marsh and when this ranch appeared in the distance, I lost my heart.

In my new novella, The Weight of the Heart, the main character encounters a couple who have a ranch near Lac Le Jeune. I had in mind a particular place, though in my imagination it’s further from the road than it is in real life. This part of it is what I remember very vividly:

jocko creek horses

And in my book? I think there’s an intimation that it doesn’t really exist, that perhaps Izzy dreamed it:

He turned his truck and went up over the hill and I followed, followed the road Maggie must have driven with Joey or the Gunnarsons. There were pines, more of the bull pines in the distance, and a shimmer of lakes just off the road. A few weather-beaten cabins back in the trees, some of them pole frames and shingles returning to earth as moss and needle duff. The very cabins were as trees in the forest. I followed, past the Jocko Creek Ranch, which surely Ethel Wilson would have known from her trips to Lac Le Jeune. And just beyond, the Two-Bit Ranch, where Pete and Alice raised cattle and Appaloosas. Their sign, marked with their brand, two circles, side by side, overlapping slightly, like the symbol for infinity, hung between two posts over the gate, which was anchored on either side by wooden wagon wheels.

Like the symbol for infinity. This morning, that’s how these places feel to me. I haven’t been back to the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road since the serious fires of 2015 and 2017. If we could pack the car today and head out, Emmylou Harris on the stereo, is that where I’d want to go? Maybe not. I do know we’ve talked about our favourite stretch of Highway 99, between Lillooet and Pavilion, stopping at the Fountain Flat store to fill our coffee mugs, and stopping along the shoulder of the road to look down at the Fraser River below.

above the fraser

Instead, I’ll prepare copies of my book to send to my children and a few far-flung friends and put a few of the keepsakes John printed into envelopes for others who’ve bought The Weight of the Heart. (If you’ve bought a copy, let me know and I’ll send you a keepsake!) In other Junes, we’ve taken road trips. This year we shelter in place, our memories vivid with rivers, wildflowers on the Bridesville-Rock Creek Road, and the sound of yellow-headed blackbirds on a small hidden marsh. Like the symbol for infinity, they too are anchored, turning a little in the wind.

The Weight of the Heart

My novella, The Weight of the Heart, is now at the printer. It’s available for pre-order here. On the one hand, publishing a book in the midst of a lockdown due to a global pandemic is perhaps unfortunate; on the other hand, people are reading and why not this book? It will take you deep into the interior of Canada’s western province as well as to Sombrio where you will roast potatoes in the coals of a cedar fire and collect salt from exposed rock for the potatoes, you’ll eat oysters fresh from their shells, you will be in good company (a thoughtful young narrator, Isabel, and her muses Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. The painter Margaret Peterson has a cameo), and you’ll hear coyotes, watch bighorn sheep mate, and you’ll stop for ice-cream at the old Pavilion store before it burned. There’s a newborn Appaloosa filly to stroke and rattlesnakes to avoid. Isabel finds an old pair of cowboy boots at a thrift store in Kamloops and if you’re lucky, you might find a pair too.

Kishkan COVER 72dpi_RGB

I thought, our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers? Thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of cartographic Morse code: dash, dot, long dash for countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about what happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depressions where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current? Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds? A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and might have been changed forever by it?

The river lay still in the sunlight, its thousand pools and eddies alive under its silver skin.

“…the harmonic scales of a fenceline…”

jocko creek horses
“The foal was still damp from her mother’s tongue. I put my hand out and her soft nostrils rested briefly on my palm. Then she returned to sucking. Her eyes, when she paused to look at me, were deep pools. They had only known daylight for a few hours and I thought of her still curled up in her mother’s body while I’d slept the night before; she was curled up with her brother who didn’t even taste his mother’s milk. I thought of them asleep in their watery darkness while I swam in the river, wanting to let go of life to join my own lost brother. Touching the filly’s spine as her tail flickered, I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears.

Last night we arrived home from a few days in Ottawa, celebrating Christmas with our family there. I made stone soup with one little boy, read “The Wheels on the Bus” many times to the other. We ate large meals, we walked (slowly, because of Grandad’s hips) to the park, and we slept in a room completely filled with books. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…) This morning I reviewed copy-edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out in spring from Palimpsest Press. When I began to write this novella, the two small boys didn’t yet exist. Yet as I looked at the text this morning, I imagined them into the landscape their dad loved so well. One day we will go there with them and show them everything we love about the dry country in the interior of B.C.

at pavilion
“So we were taking that same route, but backwards; we were driving up Pavilion Mountain rather than down and we were heading north to Kelly Lake, then east to Clinton. But my body felt the road’s contours, the rich feathery growth of the pines, the tickle of those soft grasses. I could relate these things to a map but I didn’t use the map to see how to get from one place to another. I used it as a literary text of its own.”

Reading again of the main character Izzy as she searches for the places at the heart of The Double Hook, Swamp Angel, and Hetty Dorval, and as she tries to understand the final days of her brother’s life before he drowned in the Thompson River, I felt myself to be there, in autumn, among the sumac and dried rabbitbrush, the air pungent with sage, weathered wood and lyrical pines at every turn in the road. Writing a book is one thing. Editing it is another. This stage of fine-tuning the language is a gift on the last days of the old year.

above the fraser
“I wanted them to know that I’d found the contours of their language in hills, above rivers, in the shadowy reeds of a lake, the harmonic scales of a fenceline; I wanted them to know they have written books so beautiful that they’ve entered my body, have shaped the way I see the land.

“…stories belong on maps too…”

under the bridge

This morning I’m working on the (final) edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out from Palimpsest Press in spring. It’s about several things, maybe even many, but at its heart is a young woman searching for the terroir of books she has loved: Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval; Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (and the rumour of Deep Hollow Creek, because my novella is set in the 1970s and DHC wasn’t published until 1992, though it was written before The Double Hook…). The young woman, who is Izzy, drives up the Fraser Canyon and over to Lac LeJeune and all the way to Dog Creek, and she marks a map—this is before gps, before Google—with textual notes. She is making a feminine (even feminist) cartography, though she wouldn’t have phrased it that way.

By association, stories belong on maps too, even the ones that were too quiet to be heard or else refuted the popular narratives. Stories have their own geography and need a scale bar that allows them to express location, relationships, emotions, weather effects on riverbanks, and the erosion of delicate landforms. Or they have their own gender and no one understands the legend.

When I was writing this novella, I didn’t think it would be published. Yet it will be, and I am so grateful. But more than that, I’m grateful to the women who wrote books that helped me to realize that our landscape has been lovingly commemorated by women who aren’t exactly household names in the great literary canon. I had the opportunity this time last year to remember one of them as part of CBC Radio’s The Backlist and with The Weight of the Heart, I have another opportunity to showcase their books.

The other week, on a little road trip, John and I stopped at Lytton to look at the Thompson River, greeny blue and somehow lithe, entering the brown Fraser River. The rabbitbrush had lost its yellow and gone to seed, sumac along the riverbank was brilliant red, and you could hear the thin voices of ospreys fishing. Always always always.

listening

It’s almost time for bed. I’ve been working at my desk on the first edits for my novella about rivers and women writers and maps (it’s in the process of trying to find a new title for itself because the publisher suggested the one I’d been using wasn’t quite right and her comment rang true), due out next spring from Palimpsest Press. The night is very quiet. So far. Last week the barred owls were hooting up a storm, two of them at least, and every few nights I hear coyotes or loons. Sometimes I wake, thinking I’ve heard a coyote just to the south of the house and realize it’s a loon down on Sakinaw Lake. Or vice versa. A long trembling sound in the dark. There are loons in this book, in the form of a name: Three Loon Lake, the name Ethel Wilson gives to Lac Le Jeune in her Swamp Angel. And there are plenty of coyotes because Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook has a part in the narrative too. I love it when I’m reading a passage and am interrupted by the sounds of the night. Maybe they even influence the rhythms of my writing, long unbroken sentences, then silence. Maybe. I think of what happens when I write about water, how my sentences surge and then slow down, how they whirl and gather, how they pull and retreat. Could it be any other way? If you truly listen, what you write will be full of the world.

peter2

Lately there’s been a brown rabbit hanging around (avoiding somehow the coyotes). It was nibbling the tops of dandelions up by the copper beech planted in memory of my parents. Last evening, when I was in the vegetable garden, I heard a loud clanging on one part of the fence but couldn’t see anything. This morning I saw the rabbit crouched by the one spot where a little animal might be able to scoot under the fence, carefully chosen because its mesh is supposed to be too small for anything really to be able to get through. Anything but birds. The robins pass through. So do towhees. So was the rabbit in the garden and did it make the noise going out in a hurry because it saw me? I thought something had been eating the lettuce and it turns out I was right. This morning we put some boards up along the bottom where the gap is and tomorrow we’ll do something a little more permanent. Years ago, decades ago, there were rabbits here, offspring of someone’s domestic bunnies, either escapees or else ones released because of abundance. But then the coyotes arrived and we haven’t seen rabbits for years. I love watching the jackrabbits in Brendan and Cristen’s Edmonton neighbourhood; some mornings you look out and see them crouching on the boulevard. An area with plenty of places for a species to hide and thrive is called a predator shadow and apparently Edmonton is just that. Maybe this particular rabbit has been thinking of my garden as a predator shadow because a coyote could never get through the fence. Thinking of my garden as an easy lunch. But not for long.  The beans are in flower and so are the squash. Let the rabbit eat dandelions.

Oh! Just now, a loon. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds I know, lonely and tremulous. Every now and then when we go for our morning swim, we’ll see loons on Ruby Lake. Sometimes a single bird but once, memorably, a mother and her two young. She was teaching them to call and I swam back and forth along the shore listening to her hoot and then the young ones trying to imitate. It was too early for boats so the loon three-part song was the only sound, apart from my splashes as I back-stroked along the shore.

So now I’ll go to bed full of the sound of loons, hoping that the right title will come to me, that I’ll wake early with a phrase sounding itself in my head, wanting to be written down on the scraps of paper I keep by my bed for just those moments. I’m listening, listening.

Wish me luck?

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.”