“common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe”

Yesterday a climate scientist from Stanford University was interviewed on one of the local CBC programs. He was talking about the current biodiversity crisis known as the sixth extinction. I listened and found myself crying at the damage our species has done to this beautiful planet. And as if to drive his point home in the event anyone was still doubtful about the severity of this crisis, the scientist said, Well, look at what you’re experiencing in B.C. right now. A drought unlike any you’ve seen.

He was right. May and now June have broken the records for low rainfall. I remember one shower in May. We had a little bit last Thursday but nothing before, or after. Usually June is a wet month and we make a fire in our woodstove most mornings. But not this year. It’s supposed to rain today and there was a tiny bit of mist mid-morning which I suspect is the extent of it. We have a well and so far, so good. And we’re planning to set up cisterns to capture and store water off the roof when it does begin to rain again. (Thanks to urging from son Forrest in Ottawa who has two rain-barrels…) Such a system never seemed necessary before but now it does. It’s June 24 and already some of the tomatoes on the upper deck are beginning to ripen. I’ve gardened here for 30 years and tomatoes have never ripened before mid-July.

We’re preparing to leave tomorrow for a few nights with our grand-daughter in Edmonton. So that means a lot of watering today and the good graces of our neighbour Doreen who will come to water the tomato plants on Saturday. (They’re in big pots, about 20 of them, and they dry out quite quickly.) I had to stop at one point during the watering of the upper deck, though, because this corner (you can see my clumsy sign naming it Rose Corner) was so beautiful. A big swallowtail butterfly was pausing on the roses, a hummingbird was darting among them, and big bees were entering the throats of the nasturtiums and coming out with their pollen sacs laden. (Though when I came out with a camera, they’d disappeared…)

rose corner

A frog was crouched on a cane of honeysuckle under an eave, waiting for me to finish so he could find a cool place under the green leaves. These are things I love and to think of them in jeopardy makes me feel so helpless. A cistern against the drought? Too little, too late?

Is it silly to think of magic? To read Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough and think about trying some of these techniques at home? If you hear a loud hammering on a kettle tonight, it might be us.

OF THE THINGS which the public magician sets himself to do for the good of the tribe, one of the chief is to control the weather and especially to ensure an adequate fall of rain. Water is an essential of life, and in most countries the supply of it depends upon showers. Without rain vegetation withers, animals and men languish and die. Hence in savage communities the rain-maker is a very important personage; and often a special class of magicians exists for the purpose of regulating the heavenly water-supply. The methods by which they attempt to discharge the duties of their office are commonly, though not always, based on the principle of homoeopathic or imitative magic. If they wish to make rain they simulate it by sprinkling water or mimicking clouds: if their object is to stop rain and cause drought, they avoid water and resort to warmth and fire for the sake of drying up the too abundant moisture. Such attempts are by no means confined, as the cultivated reader might imagine, to the naked inhabitants of those sultry lands like Central Australia and some parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, where often for months together the pitiless sun beats down out of a blue and cloudless sky on the parched and gaping earth. They are, or used to be, common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe. I will now illustrate them by instances drawn from the practice both of public and private magic.
Thus, for example, in a village near Dorpat, in Russia, when rain was much wanted, three men used to climb up the fir-trees of an old sacred grove. One of them drummed with a hammer on a kettle or small cask to imitate thunder; the second knocked two fire-brands together and made the sparks fly, to imitate lightning; and the third, who was called “the rain-maker,” had a bunch of twigs with which he sprinkled water from a vessel on all sides. To put an end to drought and bring down rain, women and girls of the village of Ploska are wont to go naked by night to the boundaries of the village and there pour water on the ground.  (from The Golden Bough)

a turning

The months have turned, May to June, and now it seems that the weather might too. We’ve had the driest May on record — 4.5 mms of rain and the average is 65. Not 6.5 but 65. So all the flowers have been three weeks early, the birds arrived early and the young — at least the first nestsful — have fledged or are in the process. Last evening I watched a sapsucker preparing a thick stem of cotoneaster for its young and soon I expect to see one or two attempting to feed in the prepared holes where insects will be waiting in the sap. It’s a funny thing to watch because there’s a lot of flapping on the part of the young and much earnest coaxing on the part of the parents. This morning I was mulching the garlic bed and startled a bird in the narrow gap between the box and the mesh fence. I didn’t immediately know what it was but soon realized, as it kept flapping against the fence, that it was a young towhee. One parent was calling to it from the salal just beyond the fence. I tried to ease it up but it didn’t realize that it could fly up over the fence and it flapped its way along the mesh, making small sounds of panic. Finally I approached it slowly and lifted the fence up a few inches and brushed it through the low gap. It did fly then, over to a maple by the salal, where the parent made a fuss of it.

And now I think it’s going to rain, finally. The sky has gone very grey. I’m ready for the smell of mineral rain through the window, the sound of it on the roof, the cool breath of air ruffling the linen curtains in my bedroom. I just cut a big bouquet of roses to take to a birthday celebration tonight. June roses (and honeysuckle) for my friend June.

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“They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it.” (Kirsty Gunn)

A few posts ago, Sarah of Edgeofevening left a comment about Kirsty Gunn’s novella, Rain. Something I’d written about the novella I have recently begun (The Marriage of Rivers) reminded her of Rain. I’d read Gunn’s The Keepsake but not Rain — so I ordered it immediately. It’s a wonderful book, brief, lyrical, and also dense at the same time. Dense with weather, with emotional tension, and with an almost mythic dread. It’s the size it needs to be for its plot — quite simple, yet as inevitable as rain. And as lasting in the mind and heart. (I’m listening to rain now, a welcome sound after a long dry stretch; it patters on the metal roof and the way it smells, mixed with woodsmoke — because you need a fire on a wet morning — is something I’d like to bottle and dab behind my ears.)

In a talk given at the International Conference of Virginia Woolf Studies at the University of Glasgow in 2011, Kirsty Gunn commented on her writing process:

“What I know I am writing – are sentences. That’s what I am really confronting when I am at work on a piece of fiction –  not the idea of story at all, but rather the sentence that sits on the page before me. And in the end, more than any cultural doubts about the relevance of fiction’s form and content, it’s my own inability ever to leave the sentence behind…That makes me wonder sometimes how I might get any books finished at all.

Those sentences, for me, are the fiction. They are its stuff and scent and touch and ballast. They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it. They are, these lines of words, the present tense of writing, and each one holds me in the now of making, these sentences – various, textured, new – full of smoothnesses and bits, what is known and unknown, the lovely and the shocking…So they keep me sifting through their endless possibilities, while out there somewhere is the idea of the project to which they belong, the book with its title, the story with its name…Nevertheless it is, for me, these sentences of mine that, ok, along with “the overall sense of a shape keep one at it.”

That shape is important, of course. I share with Woolf the sense of it being a kind of act of faith to “keep at it”, to keep finding the sentences that will move the fiction to find its place in the general scheme of things, be true to one’s idea of aesthetic and of form. For without that – significance – sentences would be all I would have…”

This is true of my own work. There’s a sentence, which carries with it a music, a rhythm, and that leads to the next, as a phrase of music suggests another. And those sentences will speak to one another as much as to a reader  — who at that point is unimagined in any case; or the reader is a listener, is myself, listening to the rush of words and trying to find out where they are going in their headlong play along the paper, or screen, as water moves from its source in earth, or glaciers, down a course, finding its way through a landscape, over rocks, through fields, meandering and creating oxbows, plunging over mountainsides, accumulating the taste of soil, of wild sage, of fish in its dark depths, the bodies of the drowned, a broken paddlewheel, an astrolabe dropped over the side of a canoe. Until it is itself a river.

IMG2009-0063-0007-Dm1-229x297In her talk, so appropriately given at a conference of Woolf studies, Kirsty Gunn commented that at “the beginning of writing all of my books and short stories is one sentence that starts to play over and over in my mind and that I then “capture” on the page: ‘Up in that part the water smelled rivery….'” When Rain begins with that sentence, you know you are in for a wondrous read and you’re not disappointed. You follow, with your nose as much as with your eye, your ear, until you’ve “passed the little bay at the end of the first beach but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.”