the intricate text in the wood

On our way back from a swim that didn’t happen because someone at the pool let about a third of the water drain overnight (ooops) and the young women life-guarding this weekend were trying to fill it again and to turn away the eager swimmers (just us, at 10 a.m.), anyway, on our way back we stopped at one of the trails running along the slope of Mount Hallowell to gather 7 big bags of leaves from the mature bigleaf maples growing along that part of the trail. Tomorrow if it’s nice we’ll return for another load. We do this most years. The leaves make wonderful garden mulch. I’ve just been spreading a few bags over the raspberry beds and the boxes where I grow mostly perennial greens. The chicory is still lovely and leafy and the kale that the deer ate when they broke into the garden is coming back. Some of the seeds in the long kale pods were sprouting so I potted up a bunch of the pods in a tub for the sunroom. So far the deer haven’t their way into there.


7 years ago on this day I launched my book, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, a memoir of sorts exploring my life in within the context of my love of all things arboreal. (7 years! I know I’m becoming old because of how I react to time. It hardly seems like 7 years but in that time so much has happened: 2 weddings, 3 more books, 4 grandchildren…) Mnemonic was a book I loved writing, though it took me out of my usual comfort zone. There were things I wanted to find out and the routes I took were strange and (to me) wonderful. I had to harness my impatience as I worked my way through material, puzzling and thinking, and finding a way to structure the book so that a reader might feel as though she or he was in a grove of trees, a memory grove, guided by Cicero. Pliny the Elder, John Evelyn, and the ravens of Merritt, B.C.

In fall, the samaras whirl to the ground: time to be grateful for fire, the woodshed neatly stacked with fir and bigleaf maple. Bringing in logs, I sometimes see areas of spalting within the chunks of maple I carry. This is a bacteria that causes veining in the wood, a kind of scribbling, like pen lines on paper. The bacteria can be introduced to felled maple, and cultured or managed for a time, to create beautiful patters which woodworkers value. We have a cutting board in our kitchen made by a local craftsman, featuring strips of both spalted and clear-grained maple. When I clean and oil the board, I marvel at the intricate text in the wood we use to cut our bread. Like those beetles that wrote obituaries to the ponderosa pines near Kamloops, something lively is at work to leave its story intact for the future to read as loaves are sliced, fish boned or trimmed of their fins.

cutting board

7 years later, the board is well-used, its stories intact, and new ones have been added. The stains of ripe cheeses, apples, tomatoes heavy with seeds, red cabbage partly gnawed by elk or deer trimmed, then shredded, a splash of red wine from a glass too near the cutting knife, lemon juice rubbed in to get rid of the scent of pine mushrooms, garlic.



green thoughts

abraham darby

One of my favourite garden books is Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perenyi. It’s not a “how to” book but rather a series of brief essays on everything from artichokes to toads. The writing is beautifully crisp, the author opinionated, and there was so much I shared of her view of plants and their place in our lives. I loved her admission of smuggling special potatoes home from France. I don’t think I’ve ever returned from a trip without seeds or acorns or bits of this and that in my bag. I know some people highly disapprove but honestly how did you think potatoes got to North America? Or Europe? Or the roses your grandmother grew? Her tomatoes, the ones she insisted were the same ones her grandmother grew in Siberia, or Italy?

I’ve written before that some of my plants came from John’s mother (and from her mother, too, because John’s mum used to bring back cuttings and other plant materials from her annual trip to Suffolk). Our mint, our wisterias, and one of our honeysuckles, the lovely Lonicera periclymenum ‘Serotina’ (also known as late Dutch honeysuckle, and you can bet there’s a traveling story there…), some perennial geranium, Algerian iris, and so on. There was also a wonderful honeysuckle, L. japonica ‘Halliana’, that I loved. It was semi-evergreen here, with creamy blossoms turning yellow as they aged, and I swear they smelled of jasmine. We had it growing up the deck where we eat our summer meals and oh, after rain, the air was heaven. We had another plant of it too, growing up some lattice by our patio. And after ten or so years, both of those plants died. It was easy to root from cuttings. In fact, if I cut stems of it to have in jugs around the house, quite often they’d have roots by the time the flowers had finished. But I didn’t know the plants wouldn’t overwinter the winter they died so I hadn’t taken cuttings. I kept my eye out for new plants at the garden centres but never found one until the year before last. I planted it against one post of the pergola John built by the gate to the vegetable garden. The garden is fenced with 8-foot deer-proof mesh and I wanted something less forbidding as an entrance. Last year the honeysuckle bloomed but this year, oh man, it’s reaching for the stars.


But there’s something about it…the flowers are tinged with pink. So I think it must have been mislabeled. I think it’s L. periclymenum, the common European woodbine, and I believe one of the parents of ‘Serontina’. It smells nice—but not like jasmine. I’m not a botanist (obviously) but I do pay attention and it seems to be that garden centres often sell plants that are not quite as advertised. A chestnut we bought 35 years ago is certainly not a chestnut. What is it? I don’t know. Mostly I don’t mind. I love the named and the unnamed. The David Austin rose ‘Abraham Darby’ for example: it’s beautiful, but is it any more beautiful than the old moss rose given me by Vi Tyner more than 30 years ago and which I thought I’d moved from its location beside ‘Abraham Darby’? (The moss roses are the ones to the right, still not quite open, but when they do, you can smell them ten feet away, both the flowers themselves and the resiny “moss” on the sepals. I have two—a deep pink one and a pale pink and while I understand there are some mosses that are repeat bloomers, mine flower only once, in early June. But I remember them all summer.) I did move the plant but some canes stayed in place, obviously.

two roses

Moss roses are centifolias (“hundred-petaled”), hybrids created in probably the 17th century with gallicas and damask roses as possible parents. It’s when I read about roses and their provenance that I truly regret my lack of scientific background. There’s a tangle of flower-types, origins, and species; and they go back 35 million years. Humans have a long relationship with them, using them for everything from medicine to perfume to food. My hero Pliny the Elder (as opinionated as Ms. Perenyi) said this of the rose: “It is employed also by itself for certain medicinal purposes, and is used in plasters and eye-salves for its penetrating qualities: it is used, also, to perfume the delicacies of our banquets, and is never attended with any noxious results.” And what would poets do without roses to praise? Listen to the 14th c. Persian poet, Hafiz:

Did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its
It felt the encouragement of light…

I felt that encouragement this afternoon, walking among the plants, roses entwined, the misnamed honeysuckle cascading over its supports, the robins singing the long salmonberry song in the woods beyond the house, and the light, most of all the light of late spring. Sometimes the hours are too brief to hold everything you need them to carry, too quickly they pass, but then you stop to look at butterflies in the flowering sage and it was only yesterday you brought that small plant home from a friend’s garden. You add up the hours, the years, and it was decades ago. But every spring, the flowers, the persistence.

almost bedfellows

then and now

When I visited the excavated site at Pompeii in 1975, I remember feeling such a sense of distance. There were olive trees and cypress and the long cobbled roads of (and to) the past. You could join a group walking up Mt Vesuvius — I didn’t — and it wasn’t ’til several years later that I read this description of the mountain and its power by Pliny the Younger who wrote to a friend after the eruption in 79 A.D. “…  its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.” The younger Pliny’s uncle died of fumes and was described by his nephew looking as though asleep. Today we spent the afternoon at the Pompeii exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum and I thought that the plaster casts of those who died under ash and molten lava looked serene, too.


It was so moving to see them and to understand something of their lives before everything ended. Their beautiful mosaics, the dishes of carbonized figs and olives, cooking utensils so nearly the same as ours (a skillet, some pastry molds, a glass dish very like the one we use for trifle at Christmas). Tools — a builder’s square and clamps, calipers. Maybe not the glirarium, used to rear and fatten dormice for the table:


But I think of the dogs we’ve loved and cared for and I loved this mosaic:


and I was sad to see the subject of the mosaic after it had suffered the same fate as its family:


In 1975, I thought how far away was the past and its cataclysms, and on a different continent too; but today it seemed so possible, as our global climates shift and change. Pliny again: “Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.” The cobbled roads have survived and we can walk them, figuratively or actually, and imagine that we feel the first light ash settling on our shoulders.

following the hum

Most days I spend a fair bit of time in my garden. There’s watering, transplanting, weeding (though not much of that, alas), staking, deadheading, and most of this is done in a kind of dreamy state. I am there, in that place, almost out of my self. Or more deeply into myself, is perhaps more accurate. Some days I don’t know where the natural world begins or ends because I am deeply embedded in it, my hands heavy with soil, pollen all over my arms and shoulders when I stake tomatoes or reach among the beans to coax tendrils to cling to their poles.

Mostly the critters out there ignore me. Sometimes I’ll be doing something and I’ll see a snake lying on the damp path and it won’t move until I’m almost on top of it. The deer too. The buck browsing clover the other day had to be directed, almost at arm’s length, to head into the woods, away from “our” garden. He’s perhaps the one nibbling the lower leaves from the Kwanzan cherry and he’s probably the one who regularly nips off the tender new rose leaves that push through the fence around the vegetable area. I can’t blame him. They’re delicious! And the bees are everywhere, almost unnoticed. I don’t bother them. They’ve never bothered me.

Today I listened to the humming of the bees as I hadn’t really before. I hear the hum, sure, it’s always there but mostly I hardly notice because it’s part of the texture of the day, like the ravens bickering in the woods or the drone of planes out over the Strait of Georgia. I water the tomatillos and it’s all around me. The cucumber boxes, which I water first thing — everywhere. I’ll follow the hum, I thought after lunch, and it will tell me something about what the bees truly love.

You’d think it would be this —


or these —

P1120144Look at those anthers! The stigmas! But no bees. I peered into the gorgeous squash blossoms and saw ants, not bees.

P1120150And I’m sure those plants receive their share of visits. But mostly it’s the flowers you hardly notice. The tiny yellow blooms on the tomatillos, volunteers I brought back from Forrest and Manon’s Ottawa garden when I was digging their vegetable bed in May. Wrapped in damp paper towel and put in a ziplock bag, they happily travelled home with me and are more than 6 feet tall now, loaded with both flowers and developing fruit. And as it turns out, bees.

P1120147I stood with the camera, trying to get them to hold still, but they purposefully moved from one flower to the next, burying their faces in the tiny open throats.

And they love the oregano, which I’ve let self-sow over the thirty-three years we’ve been here. It grows everywhere, doesn’t need water, smells like Greece when you brush against it on a path or even tiny clefts in the rocks. When you see it dense with bees, when you hear the humming as you bend to watch them at their work, you realize they are one of the foundations of our world. The Greeks knew this. They believed bees were a bridge between the human world and the divine. There’s no food we eat that doesn’t owe its existence (and ours) in some way to the work of bees. When I was researching the origins of mathematics for my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, I learned that Pythagoras attributed his long life — he lived to be nearly a hundred! — to a diet of honey.

Following the hum has me wanting to know more about our specific bees. A difficult but enticing task — I saw at least four kinds of bombus today and reading their names takes me to that dreamy state: orange-rumped, yellow-faced, bright yellow, red-belted, Sitka. A line of poetry, the beginnings of a whole meditation on origins, culture, social organization, military strategy, a recipe for mead, for meadow, for the music of their dance, the choreography of their lives, the elegance of their movement from one stem of oregano to the next. My mentor Pliny the Elder shares my interest, though of course he knows far more (and thinks he knows even more: he calls honey “the saliva of the stars”, fanciful but true?). And as for identification, he’s as useless as I am:

There are wild bees and bees found in woods; they have a bristling look and are much more easily stirred up, yet are noteworthy for their industry and application. There are two kinds of domesticated bees: the best is short and speckled and of a compact, round shape; the inferior kind is long and looks like a wasp, while the worst is hairy.


Pliny was here

John said I should look for a t-shirt saying, “Pliny was here,” because of my delight in learning that he was in fact in Evora, sometime round 72 or 73 A.D. (“The towns in the enjoyment of the ancient Latin rights are Ebora, which also has the name of Liberalitas Julia…” from the Natural History, book 35, thanks to the Perseus site.) I wonder if the Roman temple had been built when he was here? The information I have says only that it was built sometime in the 1st century A.D. Still, I like to think he stood on the hill and looked out to the verdant plain, as we did this morning, maybe in the shadow of the temple.


I should have remembered he’d been on the Iberian peninsula. As a young woman living in London in the mid-1970s, I first encountered the Natural History. An old tattered copy was on the shelf of my room in the rehabilitation home for ex-psychiatric patients where I worked as a volunteer. I read about geology and botany and knew I’d found a soul-mate. I loved Pliny’s confidence, even when he was (absurdly) wrong. And given my own moody sense of the impossibility of true love (I was 21…), I was heartened to learn that it might be possible to have offspring without the bother of a mate: “…Olisipo, famous for its mares, which conceive from the west wind…” (Olisipo is modern-day Lisbon, where we go tomorrow afternoon.) Pliny was the son of an equestrian so perhaps he knew a few secrets about horses.

Anyway, Evora is wonderful. This morning we walked to look at the aquedect, the Agua de Prata, or silver water, built between 1531 and 1537 to bring water to the town from a source 9 km away.  There are houses and shops nestled between the arches and plants (I’m sure Pliny could have told me what they are) grow in the crevices between the old stones. And maybe I can find that t-shirt.