my hands are full

In April, 2008, I travelled to a number of small communities along the Yellowhead Highway and beyond as part of a book tour for authors shortlisted for B.C. Book Prizes. (My collection of personal essays, Phantom Limb, had been nominated for the Hubert Evans Award.) I particularly remember the drive to Kitimat where Mary Novik and I spent time with high school kids in the afternoon and then, before the evening reading at Book Masters, Bryan Pike (the amazing organizer and driver for the tour) took us out to the Haisla village of Kitamaat for dinner at Sea Masters. The restaurant was right on the edge of Douglas Channel and we sat by a window and ate wonderful food — crab cakes with mango salsa, snapper,  halibut: food taken from the waters we looked out on. Pristine waters, alive with seabirds, mists, and seals near the shore.

It was a sublime experience. I’ve often thought of that channel, particularly now that the news is full of the federal government’s go-ahead to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal which would bring bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat where it would then be taken to offshore markets by supertankers navigating the wild waters of our western coast. I’m not an economist nor a energy expert nor a captain of any kind of industry apart from my home and garden. But I’m a citizen and I don’t believe this project is sound. I recall the terrible days following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. The giant tanker ran into Bligh Reef, releasing up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil into those pristine waters. This was an accident that “couldn’t happen” — statistically, at least. But it did. I remember the photographs of seabirds, sea and river otters, seals, orcas, all covered in oil and dying. The long-term damage and losses were catastrophic — think of the communities dependent on those resources: the mussel and clam beds, the herring and salmon runs, the eel-grass beds providing nurseries for little organisms.  All these years later, crude oil continues to be a problem in soils and sands.

So the petitions are circulating and I’ve signed one: And I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that this pipeline doesn’t progress any further than it already has.

But I was delighted to learn that the Gitga’at First Nations have come up with a plan. “Made of multicolour yarn and decorated with family keepsakes and mementos including baby pictures and fishing floats with written messages on them, the chain will stretch from Hawkesbury Island to Hartley Bay, a distance of 11,544 feet.”

It doesn’t surprise me that women are protesting with yarn and old skills. I sometimes think we meditate with our hands, we come to solutions by feeling our way through problems, loneliness, grief, hardship, and traumas by immersing our hands in the materials of creation. And while I’ve been listening to news of this yarn blockade, I’ve been meditating myself, knitting a blanket for my first grandchild, due in July. The connection between keeping a newborn baby warm and safe and protecting the place I love so dearly is as clear as anything I know.




“What did the thrushes know?” (for Anna)

I’m writing this while snow falls. Again. Snow is not unheard of in our part of the world but it’s late this year, and abundant. Usually by now we are seeing salmonberry blossoms in the woods near us  — single blooms as early as February 17, I see in my notes, and often many by the end of February — and am I completely wrong or do we also hear the long whistles of varied thrushes when we walk down Sakinaw Lake Road in March? That may be pushing it — memory is not always reliable when it comes to hope.

The varied thrushes are around right now but this is because it’s cold and they’re drawn to the seeds that fall from the bird feeder strung on the clothes line. The clouds of chickadees and the animated Steller’s jays always spill some seed while eating and the thrushes wait quietly on the ground for an opportunity to forage a bit. They’re shy. This is the only time of year we can reliably see them. But that whistle — a long note on one pitch, then rising to another, ringing out of the dense woods: it’s one of my favourite bird songs. It’s both sweet and mysterious, somehow. Some mornings I hear it when I first wake, the rising notes pulling me to consciousness, and I lie in my bed listening with something close to pure joy.

Friend Anna in England sent me a link to an Edward Thomas poem this morning. “March” is a poem about spring, about thrushes, primroses, and snow. About faith too. These lines spoke to me so clearly:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.

I had them in mind when I went out to fill the feeder just now, though the thrushes were not in sight. And the only primroses are in memory, the drifts of them in the hedgerows near the island where I lived for a time in Ireland and used to pass on my way to the nearest town for groceries. I wrote about those hedgerows in an essay, “Well”, in my book Phantom Limb: “…a dense hedge, with fuchia among it, on either side of the narrow road and the raised banks white with wild garlic, yellow with primroses. Birds sang unseen within its depths.” The only time in my life I’ve seen a badger was then. I watched it amble across the road and disappear into a tunnel or sett in the hedgerow. The rich growth above the ground was all the more remarkable for the thought of the tunnels below with their sleeping clans.

Edward Thomas’s poem has a special poignancy when I think of his life. He suffered from depressions and physical and psychological breakdowns. He wrote all his poems during a two-year period before his death, at the Battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917. His great solace was the natural world. His poems are filled with birds, with the sights and sounds of the countryside.

Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

It’s still snowing — even harder now. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of the tray of  primula from the supermarket, arranged by our front door. I always buy the creamy ones, the closest thing to the Irish beauties I still dream of and which Edward Thomas quietly memorialised more than a hundred years ago.



“My husband went on a trip…and returned with a gift for me, a hand-blown paperweight with a beautiful sea anemone inside. There are five tentacles of pink and blue glass. I believe it was made with rods of glass, like in millefiore, but the rods have been hollowed or opened rather than stretched. I know that sea anemones are carnivorous — we see them on the local beaches, at the intertidal zone, waving their tentacles in the air for prey. Touching them with a finger, we feel the faint suction, then see them retract. I know they are territorial and can clone themselves so that often a colony will develop which consists of genetically identical anemones; when another colony encroaches, those on the periphery engage in battles to defend their little area of rock. Maybe they are defending their genetic integrity. Looking at my paperweight, I imagine that something has been captured inside it, something precious and rare.” (from Phantom Limb, published by Thistledown Press in 2007)

I’ve returned to work on a memoir about my mother and my paternal grandmother. My mother was given up at birth — she was born on Cape Breton Island — and put into a foster home where she lived until adulthood. She kept the surname of her biological father, MacDonald, and she knew the surname name of her biological mother, McDougall. But everything else is a mystery. She insisted she never wanted to know about her birth parents because she felt she’d been abandoned and any loyalty she felt was directed to her foster mother and sister. But when she died in 2010, I felt compelled to try to find something about her origins. I have some papers but nothing leads to me to anything like a source. Vital Statistics in Halifax, where she was raised, have told me that I have no right to a copy of her birth certificate (which she knew about and which she said included the names of both her parents) until 100 years after her birth — that will be February 8, 2026. I’ve posted queries on genealogy websites in Nova Scotia and I’ve tried a few other things as well. But so far, nothing.

The paperweight John gave me when I was first musing about my mother and everything I didn’t know about her background sits on my desk, to the left of my computer. Most days I pick it up, look at it, use it to hold down bits of paper or file cards. This morning I looked into it, wondering if family secrets can ever be truly solved or understood. I have a renewed interest in pursuing my mother’s mysterious story, the sensitive tentacle of her connection to Cape Breton Island and further back, Scotland.