“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river

“…full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys…”

fraser below lillooet

From a work-in-progress:

I find the rivers I love, the ones I dream about. I find them in the atlas and realize they too have their difficulties. They rise in springs or seep from marshes or the melting of glaciers, they gather, they flow, so clean in their beginnings, and unless they become grounded or are endorheic, they arrive at the great oceans of the world full of the silts, the effluents, the timbers and old cars and snowmelt and rain of their journeys. There will have been diversions. There will have been accidents. There might have been meanders and braidings and temporary islands and dams.

A deep river, two or three houses in bamboo quiet,
And such goings on: red blossoms glaring with white!

Among spring’s vociferous glories, I too have my place:
With a lovely wine, bidding life’s affairs bon voyage.

“the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno”

fraser below lillooet
The Fraser River, below Lillooet

At 2 a.m., I was awake and thinking about the essay I thought I’d finished last night. I’d worked on it yesterday morning, then had to go down the coast to do errands, but as soon as I got home, I was back at my desk. I thought I had it and I went to bed with that deep satisfaction that comes when you complete something. Until I woke in the wee hours with the sense that there was still more to do. So I came downstairs, feeling my way in the dark, and switched on my small desk lamp that always makes me feel that I am in the best place in the world: my own room with its deep rose walls and Giotto ceiling, my books and papers all around me (some would say in disarray but mostly I know where everything is). I heard owls. The cat was delighted to find me awake.

Sometimes I feel constrained by form. I think of the essay in a particular way and I think I am writing that kind of essay. An argument, an anecdote, a piece of non-fiction (a term I dislike, esp. when paired with “creative”), a reflective narrative (on occasion), a memoir-ish construction, a series of questions and answers. A beginning, an ending. I’ve written versions of this essay and I know I will write other versions in the future. But the essay I’ve been working on is something else. It’s both objective and subjective. The passages based on memory or history are reconstructed and might not be objectively true. The passages based on human physiology are imaginary voyages into my own body. Its geography is dependent upon maps that might not be accurate in the Cartesian sense but I think the heart would approve. (Mine does. At least it does this morning.)

In the small hours, I realized that I had to push the actual physical structure more than I had by simply deciding to move some of the sections to a right-handed margin. Yes, I was pleased with how this worked but I wanted less reliance on river banks and dams and more flooding. So that’s what I did. I sat with my paper draft and tried to see how I could use the space to make my language advance its imagery and its innuendos. The final draft (or final until this morning) is nearly 7000 words and there is a structure, yes, but it’s not the kind I usually employ. There are connections across time and space. You’ll notice them if you give up the expectation that one thing leads to another in a straightforward pattern. Here’s a short passage from section 14.

the Deadman and Bonaparte, Upper Hat Creek,

Coldwater, and the Kispiox where my children waded on a hot day in July, the Leech and Jordan, the Nitinat and Koksilah, the Oyster and Nimpkish, the Po and Arno and the sweet Hoh and Queets and Ozette where I camped as a young woman, the Snake, the Escalante and Kanab, the Lost and the Warm and the Coeur d’Alene,

the Kern, the Mad, Klamath and Rowdy Creek,

the Lost, the Elk,

and the one I walk to season after season, near my home, where coho salmon swim in by starlight

and mergansers wait to feed on their eggs.

And if I sound excited, it’s because I am. Every time I finish something, I wonder if I’ve written everything I have to write. Maybe that’s it. And then I write something else. I’m kind of looking at my clutter (it’s an organized clutter. Maybe.) and wondering what I might find if I move things around.

Oh, and I still don’t have a title.

 

“creeks in the darkness”

bridge over Rosebud River
bridge over the Rosebud River, April, 2016

I am currently at work on an essay about rivers and blood clots. An odd combination, I know, but I seem to have a clotting disorder (I’m waiting to see a hematologist for further tests) and it’s made me think a little more seriously about how our venous system works. How everything flows normally and then doesn’t. And of course that led me to think about rivers, the ones I love and return to, and how they change too for reasons that have some similarities to what happens with our veins. So it’s very absorbing, this essay, and I woke this morning with that kind of excitement I’ve always felt as I enter the deep waters of writing. It’s leading me to the north, to the MacKenzie River, where we were lucky enough to spend a few days in Fort Simpson at break-up, and to Englishman River, where I camped as a child and then as a young woman in desperate straits, and this morning to the Rosebud River as we drove it two springs ago very early and stopped at the aqua bridge between Wayne and Rosedale to listen to magpies. And in my mind is how to keep the various strands winding around each other, as the channels of braided rivers split and rejoin, as banks erode and are changed over years or centuries.

A deep cramping pain. Some swelling. In the Emergency room, my history is taken. Pulmonary embolism a year ago. Suspected deep vein thrombosis. 6 months of blood thinners. Many scans and tests.

A lab technician is called from his bed to take my blood for a d-dimer test to determine if there is active clot activity. An ultrasound is set for the next morning, though it is well into that morning when the technician draws blood from the pool of my right arm. I do not wait for the results because I want some sleep and the person in the other bed is on a powerful narcotic that makes her itchy, causes her to moan on her side of the screen that separates us. The medical staff is not happy I’m leaving.

We drive home on a dark highway. It’s a 45 minute journey and after 30 minutes the Emergency room physician phones me on my husband’s cell phone. In the car, the loud opening chords of “Sultans of Swing”, a moment when I regret he didn’t set his ring tone to something sweet—the Brahms lullaby or “That Sheep May Safely Graze”—as I struggle to stab in the right place to answer it. The physician tells me that my d-dimer test is positive for blood clotting, that I may have a DVT, and that I must return immediately to begin a course of anticoagulants.

As I’ll be coming in later in the morning for an ultrasound, I can’t just wait until then?”

No, I must insist you come back now.”

So we turn around and head back, my husband silent with weariness. He won’t let me drive. About halfway to the hospital, we see a large animal on the side of the highway. Not large like elk, which we see quite often. And not a coyote. Bigger than that. It takes a moment or two, and the glare of the animal’s golden eyes, for us to realize we’re seeing a cougar. I’ve lived on this peninsula for 35 years and I’ve seen just two cougars in that time. I’ve heard two more, I think, but sightings are rare.

All down the coast, we passed creeks in the darkness, Homesite, Meyer, Anderson, Maple, Haskins, scribbling down the mountains. And I would do it all again, sit at the desk with a nurse taking my pulse, my blood pressure, arranging for bloodwork, ultrasound, medication to prevent a blood clot moving up into my lungs, for the glow of the cougar’s eyes in our headlights, and the knowledge of water finding its way to the sea.