cell by cell

afternoon deck

It felt like summer on this deck (with its bronze fish). Huge bees, bombus spp. of some sort (orange rumps…), going from flower to flower—crocus, daffodils, forsythia, low yellow primula. I planted out the seedlings of sugar peas I started indoors on March 16th. They were a foot tall and ready for their bed in Wave (the box where there’s a good screen of chicken wire for them to grow up against). I also transplanted some tiny kale seedlings, self-sown, in Long Eye. (My vegetable beds have names. What can I say.)

Over the past week I finished another of the essays for the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. The process of writing these essays feels a little like the fall of 2016, when I’d been tentatively diagnosed with something serious and I felt that I couldn’t waste time. I’d get up in the night and come down to my desk to work on the material that became Euclid’s Orchard. There was urgency in the work and also the daily rhythm of my life. I have no regrets, either for the sense that time was limited and I needed to use it well, and for the headlong energy I expended during that period. I felt lucky. I lived with someone I loved and who I knew would accompany me on any dark path that beckoned. I had a wonderful extended family. (Still have!) This work has that same urgency, though (as far as I know) I am strong and healthy. When I wake in the night, I have the sense that everything I know is connected, that I need to find way to stitch it all together like a useful and beautiful length of tapestry. Everything is connected, the flight of the bumblebees, the starlight, a pileated woodpecker just beyond my garden, drumming on a Douglas fir, the small blue scribble of my grandfather’s signature—he was learning to sign his name on a scrap of paper and mostly he gives up on the first syllable of his surname (my surname) but a single version is complete—the new chives so green and pungent in their pots on the deck.

The essay I just finished, “blueprints”, takes me back to house-building, the beginnings of our family, and then reaches back, back, to my grandparents’ years in Beverly, then a community outside Edmonton and now part of the city. It reaches back to the extraordinary photographer Anna Atkins, whose cyanotypes are botanical studies in blue and white. It ends with an informal picnic on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River as the ice breaks up, the ice I saw forming in late November as we drove across the Walterdale Bridge on our way to the Emergency ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital because my retinas were trying to detach, the result of a hard fall on ice.

What I did today was shadowed by bees, their orange rumps glowing in sunlight. They entered the trumpets of daffodils, hovered over warm soil, paused from time to time on the sleeve of my flannel shirt.

We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
We made
the body, cell by cell we made it.

—Rumi, translated by Robert Bly

the colour of sleep

A stormy wet day here on the west coast, the air drenched with November rain. A good day to work inside, to lay out a quilt using the indigo-dyed fabric from an October weekend with the dye vat. I’ve been thinking about how to use the finished cloth. This piece is a length of fairly coarse linen and I used a kumo technique on half of the fabric, placing small round beach stones on a series of diagonal lines. The other half I just twisted and bound with hemp string. I love the result and didn’t want to cut it.


I hoped to find a piece of deep red flannel for the back but the fabric shop in Sechelt didn’t have quite enough so I bought a brighter red instead. It’s very soft, as is the organic cotton batting I bought for the middle layer. Smoothing and arranging the layers together was very satisfying and already my hands are yearning to quilt this one. I’m not sure quite how I’ll do that. I thought maybe a grid of red sashiko stitches and who knows, maybe that’s what I’ll try. But I also have a box of shell buttons in varying sizes and I’m thinking about how they might fit into the quilting process.  Texture and intention often suggest how one should approach the actual quilting. The linen is heavy and so small stitches might be difficult to do. The flannel will be kind of slippery. And because I don’t intend this to be a bed-cover but a more decorative piece, I can get away with quilting that isn’t entirely meant for strength. Here’s a view of the layers basted together:

laid out

I love blue. I love the blues that are the result of indigo dyes. I’ve yet to get the really dark indigo that I know is possible through careful dips and oxidization periods. I used Procion dye for an early shibori quilt and yes, it’s a darker blue but somehow it’s not as moody as natural indigo. (I have a tub of woad too but haven’t yet tried it.) I’ve been reading about colour psychology and most of it seems silly to me. On indigo, for example: “It suggests fairness and integrity, being an authoritative color. Indigo has a lot to do with structure and implies a need for organization. It has to do with rules, traditions and religion.” I remember when I read Victoria Finlay’s book on colour about ten years ago that blue was one of the most expensive pigments and was reserved for moments such as painting the Virgin Mary’s robes.

I’ve read that blue is one of the best colours for restful sleep because the ganglion cells in your eyes’ retinas are sensitive to blue and associate it with calm, keeping your blood pressure low and reducing your heart rate. My bedroom walls are soft yellow but I have an indigo block-printed cover on my duvet, and in winter I make our bed with blue flannel sheets. Sometimes my sleep is restful, yes, and sometimes it’s filled with drama and extravagant adventure. So who knows. In Robert Bly’s beautiful “The Indigo Bunting” (a bird I’ve never seen though there were snow buntings where I lived in Ireland), there’s a stanza I love:

There were women in Egypt who
supported with their firmness the stars
as they revolved,
hardly aware
of the passage from night
to day and back to night.

My indigo quilt will have stars, diagonal lines of them created with stones and elastic bands resisting the dye, and maybe when it’s finished, I’ll hang it over the bed, a charm to take the sleepers below from night to day and back to night. I’d be happy to dream of those women, holding up the sky, hardly aware, which is sort of the way things work sometimes. Women, stars, the colour of sleep.

“…old pleasures abundant”

august fig.jpg

A book I turn to in summer is a beautiful edition of Robert Bly’s Ramages, published by Gaylord Schanilec’s Midnight Paper Sales in 2005. This was a gift from Anik See, friend and co-conspirator in our Fish Gotta Swim Editions project. The poem”Turkish Pears” holds in it the heat and bounty of August.

Sometimes a poem has her own husband
And children, her nooks and gardens and kitchens,
Her stairs, and those sweet-armed serving boys
Who carry veal in shiny copper pans.
Some poems do give plebeian sweets
Tastier than the chocolates French diners
Eat at evening, and old pleasures abundant
As Turkish pears in the garden in August.

No veal or multiple kitchens here, no pears this August (when you read my essay “Euclid’s Orchard” you’ll understand why…), but there are old pleasures and gardens and even a sweet-armed serving boy. Errr, man. And if not Turkish pears, at least Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’, which we ate last evening stuffed with Boursin cheese and wrapped in proscuitto. And I’ve just picked more.


The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.

— from “The Mushroom” by Robert Bly

This has been a rich season for mushrooms. Chanterelles, shaggy manes, a gift of dried porcini from my friend Anik who spent the summer in Dawson City, and the coveted matsutake, or pine mushroom. The week before last, we found about 20 of them on our walk, in a place where we usually find a handful. Another walk yielded more. And today, unexpected treaure on the Sakinaw loop walk. Tonight we’re having pizza — dough for the crust is rising by the woodstove and in a few minutes I’ll pick some kale. Delicious fresh mozzarella from Fairburn Farm water buffalos. Garlic from the summer’s bounty. And some proscuitto from, well, who knows. And a matsutake thinly sliced and sauteed in a little olive oil. A marriage of autumn flavours, gifts from garden and forest, before winter appears over the mountain.


Turkish pears, Okanagan peaches

In 2005, our friend Anik See gave us a beautiful little book, Turkish Pears in August: 20 Ramages, by Robert Bly, printed by Gaylord Schanilec at Midnight Paper Sales (www.midnightpapersales.com). Ramage is the name Bly gives for the brief 8 line poems in the collection: “The word occasionally appears as the name of a movement during some French compositions for flute; it is related to the French noun for “branch.” We can hear the root of that in “ramify”. The tunings of these things is like tuning on horseback some sort of stringed instrument from the Urals.”

The title poem celebrates “old pleasures abundant/As Turkish pears in the garden in August.” I thought of those ramages yesterday when I saw these peaches in Claytons in Sechelt, so richly coloured, so deserving of their own poem. Or at least their own golden eloquence in jars on a dark shelf, scented with vanilla bean and ginger.