the chilly notes of old carols

christmas cards

Almost every year since 1980, we’ve printed Christmas cards on our 19th c. Chandler&Price platen press. It’s treadle-driven, with an elegant fly-wheel, and when it’s in action, I can hear it from the kitchen, the rumble of its gears, and the steady thump of the treadle. I say “we” but John prints the linocuts that I make at the kitchen table after softening the lino against the window of the woodstove. I’m not an artist but almost every year I come up with something that we match with passages of poetry, old carols, a few sentences from an essay. The blue boat you can see at the back of the photograph is one of the carol ships we used to watch from our friend Edith Iglauer’s deck. The boats would move in and out of the little bays, their rigging strung with lights, and you could hear people singing carols on their decks. Those of us watching from shore would try to match our voices to the ones that drifted across the dark water. One year the card was our house on its hill. Another showed our cat sitting on a windowsill. Once a quilt block (Variable Star), once a pear, once a grouse in cotoneaster, once a pygmy owl on the bough of fir where we spotted it on a walk. Last year there was supposed to be a Steller’s jay but I wasn’t happy with the inking and said I wouldn’t mail it out. John went quiet. (It’s a lot of work to set the block, to set the type, to print—often in two colours, which means two inkings, two times through the press.) He mailed a few and somewhere there’s a stack of under-inked jays with rather dashing crests.

This year, there won’t be a card. When I said the press is treadle-driven, I mean that there’s an iron treadle that is pedaled with the right foot. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know that John had double hip surgery in October and suffered from a compressed sciatic nerve that affected his peroneal nerve, resulting in a paralyzed right foot. It may or may not recover, though he’s experiencing more feeling in his foot and more movement, and we are hopeful. With some work, he will no doubt be able to figure out a good way to use the treadle again but not yet. He has some plans for press work in the new year and who knows, there might be something to send out then.

I think my favourite of all the cards is the one on the left, in front—two coho salmon in Haskins Creek. Every year we walk over to the creek to witness the return of the fish to the tiny creek running down off Mount Hallowell to where it enters Sakinaw Lake. The fish swim the length of the lake in summer and early fall, waiting until there’s enough water in the creek to allow them to make their way to the gravel beds where they’ll dig redds and spawn. Eagles wait in the huge cedars and coyotes lurk and once I saw a bear dragging a fish away on the opposite bank of the creek as we walked towards the water. Watching the salmon puts life, and death, in perspective.

Mid-winter is the season of miracles—children returning from distant enterprises; the chilly notes of old carols in the air; ancient stories of birth and death; two dark red fish sidling together in a riffle overhung with ferns, fish who have come such a vast distance through rain and under stars to find this unlikely water; a few loose eggs in the gravel glistening like a rare and costly gift.

—from “Autumn Coho in Haskins Creek”, published in Phantom Limb, Thistledown Press, 2007.

Later this morning we’ll go over to the creek. I don’t know if the fish are there yet. Some years they arrive in early December. We’ve watched them at New Year. So who knows. But we need this now. We need to remember the ancient stories that sustain us, all of us, as the northern hemisphere tilts its furthest distance from the sun and we prepare for the shortest day of the year. We will be the couple, arm in arm, on the bank of the creek, looking into its fast clean water, as the fish swim past barely noticing us. And if you listen carefully, across the dark water, you might hear one of us singing softly:

I sing of a night in Bethlehem
a night as bright as dawn
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
the night the Word was born*

*this is one of my favourite Christmas moments, recited by Burgess Meredith on the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin

the things we wake to

At 5:30, the smell of smoke. (Every window open.) Came down to check and yes, there’s a fire nearby, about 15 minutes south of us, on Cecil Hill, overlooking the little townsite of Madeira Park. Where we shop. Where we are preparing for our 15th Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival in August, where my children went to elementary school, where the government wharf is. All morning the water bombers (skimmers, these ones are called) have been swooping down over Sakinaw Lake, the helicopters are dipping their buckets in one of the calm bays nearer the fire. It was 2.25 hectares last night as we were eating mussels at the Backeddy Pub, oblivious, watching for whales (not lucky enough last night). Just now? 5 hectares. And people on evacuation alert.

I didn’t go back to sleep but when I got up a couple of hours later, the rabbit (now we are thinking it’s a snowshoe hare or snowshoe rabbit, Lepus americanus) was grazing peacefully just below the deck off our bedroom. I watched it for quite a while and realized it was eating, almost methodically, yellow hawkweed.

morning hare

We’ve seen it every morning now for the last 6 days, always near the forest edge. They prefer dense understory, apparently, and that’s what we have. That’s what’s burning on Cecil Hill. First thing, the reports were that the trees weren’t on fire but the underbrush and this time of year? Oh, it’s dry. The salal is desiccated in areas, the duff—old leaves, stems, the crisp moss—like fire-starter. Which it is. And has. The Cecil Hill fire is believed to be human-caused.

So smoke and hares and the experience of being elsewhere, in a way, because I’m editing my novella, set mostly around the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, even in them at times. Years ago we took Brendan and Cristen white-water rafting down the Thompson River, from Spences Bridge to Lytton, and at quiet points along the river, the guide encouraged us to swim. I expected it to be cold and it wasn’t, really. It was green and deep and one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, drifting alongside the raft, hanging onto a rope. There are moments like that in the novella, and also much sadder ones, but now I am looking for a title that carries the rivers in it, graceful, dangerous, and deeply historied. I keep making notes but I don’t think I have the right one yet.

These were the things I woke to: the smoke (so evocative in winter, when it’s our own fire in the woodstove, keeping us warm, reminding us of every winter we’ve spent here, building the fire each morning, drawn to it from other parts of the house to talk and share a glass of wine late in the afternoon); the snowshoe hare, like an emissary, its mouth full of hawkweed and its ears twitching; and the prospect of time in the rivers, or near them, if only on paper. Here’s a little passage to remind me, and you, too.

Our bodies are porous. They take in river water, sunlight, the scent of Artemisa frigida, dust from bone dry slopes, dust of bones themselves littered on the talus (bighorn sheep, marmots, the tiny hollow leg bone of birds eaten and excreted by coyotes, sand particles), pollen from ponderosa pines, midges, spores too minute to affect anything other than a lung, fine hairs of mule deer, the stink of migrating salmon. Over us, the deep blue sky, through us the air so warm and clear we breathe it in deeply and it doesn’t seem altered when we exhale yet the work of our bodies is there too. And helium, beryllium, and carbon, iron and nickel, the dust from dying stars.

postcards from a morning walk to Haskins Creek

We walked over to the creek to see if the coho were there yet. Some years it’s a little earlier and some years later. We’ve seen them as late as New Year’s Day and as early as the beginning of December. Today, though? I think we were seeing the beginning of the run. There weren’t yet fish in the upper pools and there were lots just entering the creek from Sakinaw Lake where they’d been gathering until water levels were high enough in the creek. This couple was the first we saw:

couple

And this beauty waiting for an opportunity to make the leap up a small ladder:

waitig

We’ve lived here since 1982 and it never gets old. The fish crowding into the pools, pairing up, the dippers on the logs, the mergansers waiting at the creek mouth for stray eggs to wash down, the eagles in the cedars, the lake beyond leading to the ocean, the young couple we were ourselves when we first walked here with our children, our deep pleasure at the returning coho.

One year I accompanied Angelica and her friend Gloria to this creek and two others when they were 15 and conducting an aquatic insect sampling for a science project. They wore hip-waders and dipped nets into the cold water — after the salmon had spawned, and taking care to avoid the area where the redds were —  making an inventory of what they found. I felt privileged to be part of their work, helping them to identify various larvae. And when I walk down to the creek each winter, I am aware of them, their voices calling out in excitement as they examined leeches and caddis fly larvae.

This morning the lake was quiet and the only sound was an eagle beyond the point and the splashing of fish as they angled for position in the gravel beds.

moving

There’s a beautiful Tsimshian potlatch song that I think of when I watch the fish at the end of a long journey, a journey that ends in both death and life. These are the final three lines:

I walk around where the water runs into whirlpools.
They talk quickly as if they are in a hurry.
The sky is turning over. They call me.

And every year, they do.

 

“I never wanted to go anywhere else in the world…”

reading
I can’t see which book John is reading to Kelly (two weeks ago) but in my mind I am hearing the one he read many times during her visit, When I was Young in the Mountains, and I hear his voice coming from those chairs by the woodstove: “When I was young in the mountains, I never wanted to go to the ocean, and I never wanted to go to the desert. I never wanted to go anywhere else in the world, for I was in the mountains. And that was always enough.”
On our walk the other day, the second to last day of November, we were passing where Vine Brook Creek tumbles down the side of Mount Hallowell to find its way into Sakinaw Lake, and he said, “I don’t think of us as living in the mountains but of course we do.”
vine brook creek

 

“with the days unspooling”

tracks

North America and Europe have been experiencing cold weather, colder than usual. We often have a few very cold days in mid-winter, some snow, but this year — and last, because we’re only just into 2017 — we’ve had a lot of snow and temperatures around minus 10. Last night it rained and everything is melting today. What I’ve enjoyed about the snow is seeing the tracks and realizing, again, how populated this area truly is. Deer tracks, elk, weasels winding up and down the driveway — and a cat. A wild cat. Not a bobcat (we have those too) but a black and white cat hovering around. Yesterday its tracks were so clear in the snow, wandering around under the bird feeder, the woodpile (where mice nestle in for the season), the compost box (where mice nest, too, for the warmth), and then darting under the old dog-house, uninhabited now but restored, just in case. I was surprised because there are coyotes around and a cat would make a good breakfast for a hungry canine. Especially in winter. I put a little dish of food out in a protected area and see this morning that it’s empty.

The other day we went for a walk around what we call the Sakinaw loop. Down our driveway to the highway, along for about a quarter of a kilometer to Sakinaw Lake Road, down that long hill to the lake and Haskins Creek where the coho spawn, and then along a trail that leads through the woods below our property, meeting our driveway again beyond the gate to our neighbour’s place. We were talking, talking, as we always do. It’s been a 38 year conversation at this point in our lives. I’ve just finished a book of essays and John is coming to the end of a collection of poems so we discussed what we hoped the work had done –in my case, to explore old ground in a new way; and in John’s, to complete a sequence long in the making, about animals. At the top of Sakinaw Lake Road, we noticed the coyote tracks, fresh, in the snow, two sets, one on either side of the road, leading down the hill that we were also walking (carefully) down. Sometimes one set of tracks would edge closer to the other set and at one point, there were signs of a skirmish or play in the deeper snow by the salmonberry bushes. You could see at another point that one animal had run for a bit. But mostly the pair was ambling, as we ambled. I expected the tracks to lead over to the creek where there might still be some carcasses to feed on. But no. They continued, as we continued, along the trail through the woods. Fresh scat. The bodies coming closer together as ours came closer together where the trail narrowed.

There’s lots of research that tells us coyotes practice social monogamy – they live together for long periods but might mate with others. But recent research suggests they also practice genetic monogramy. They only reproduce with each other. I don’t know if the tracks we were following belonged to the pair who mate each year, in late February, in the woods near us. We’ve heard them. (It’s something that I wrote about in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, part of the book titled for that essay,  due out in September…) And one year one of their pups came most mornings for a week, in August, eating salal berries just below the deck where we were drinking coffee with one of our sons, watching as it explored, even entering the old dog-house to try out the space.

So I walked down the road with my life partner, talking, and just ahead of us on the trail, the coyotes were ambling too, either talking, or not, with the days unspooling ahead of them.

The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
    --Gary Snyder

“Where does spirit live?”

Awake very early, listening to a loon call on Sakinaw Lake as the light was just beginning, and I felt the sound enter my body, as a soul returns after a long journey. When we camped here, 35 summers ago, we heard loons all summer, the air tremulous with their calls. I’d wake from sleep, my husband and first baby next to me in the tent, and think how far we were from everything we’d known, yet how complete that felt. A house creates barriers, the walls less porous than the canvas we were sleeping within. And age creates other barriers — you sleep differently and miss the sounds of the night.

morning window.jpg

Where does spirit live? Inside or outside

Things remembered, made things, things unmade?

What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried?

                               –Seamus Heaney, from “Settings”, in Seeing Things

“Now I shall talk about the spawn of the silver-salmon…”

Waiting for the salmon in the nearby creek has me reading my ancient copy of Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, based on data collected by George Hunt, by the important (though mercurial) Franz Boas. It’s on my desk and I’ve been looking at the various methods of collecting and preserving fish for later in the year. Cheeks, tails, fins, eggs, backbones — all good sources of nutrition. Reading about the baskets and wooden boxes and woven mats for storing the preserved food has me wanting to make things, and not just food.

In fact there are finally coho salmon in the little creek that runs alongside the boat ramp at the foot of Sakinaw Lake Road. It’s such a narrow creek that I have to wonder how those fish will ever find their own privacy to lay their eggs for the next generation. The situation is not helped by the fact that there’s garbage strewn along the road and a bag of old diapers tossed into the brush at the creek’s edge. There have been guys building a dock down there, preparing to tow it out to one of the summer cabins on the lake, and there’s some oil from their vehicules on the slope of gravel leading down to the lake. What a species we are. I’m going to go over later today and gather up garbage and post a little sign. Those fish deserve more.

There are also salmon gathering in the lake near Haskins Creek but as of yesterday they hadn’t yet entered it. There’s not a lot of water but some quiet pools are waiting. Little freshets to keep the water oxygenated. Deep prints in the mud which means that coyotes are also waiting. The day before yesterday I surprised a red-tailed hawk on the ground and it flew up to an alder with a little cry. And I have to say, it surprised me too.

Friends are coming to lunch today and I’m going to make smoked salmon chowder. And rather than a blurry photograph of fish in dark water, I’ll show you the quilt I’m still at work on, sewing akoya buttons onto the batiked salmon who are swimming both upstream and downstream, to their own deaths and towards their lives.

P1090440

creek walk

We’re waiting for the coho salmon to enter Haskins Creek. They have arrived as early as late November and as late as the period between Christmas and New Year. The water level in the creek is low and I think the fish are probably hanging around in Sakinaw Lake into which Haskins Creek empties. We walk over every few days and peer hopefully into the water but no fish yet. I think they are my favourite fish on earth (or in water), their clean burgundy and dark green bodies in the clear creek, the dark jacks darting among them. (Jacks are called grilse on the east coast. And I was delighted to learn that the spawned-out fish are called kelts.) I think of how far they’ve migrated from this small creek in their infancy and how they find it again as adults, every departure and return entailing a long swim through Sakinaw Lake, entering the sea or leaving it.

Waiting for them reminds me of the way patience is at the heart of so much of my life. It’s not an easy virtue  — if it is a virtue. My mother always insisted it was. This morning I was awake early and came down to work on the essay I have in progress: “Euclid’s Orchard.” It’s about language, genetics, mathematics with its attendant difficulties, love, and why we’ve abandoned our own orchard, leaving it to the bears and deer who kept breaking down the fences, eating the fruit before we could pick it, and now the elk who’ve also discovered it. It’s about patterns and how they both echo and transmutate, crossing the borders of one discipline or landscape and finding themselves at home in another. But I sat at my desk and didn’t know where to go next. If there’s a pathway from what I’ve written to what I need to write next, it’s hidden.

I worked on my current salmon quilt instead, my needle following the spiral I am stitching into a panel of indigo cotton printed with raindrops. Spirals lead me to think about labyrinths. There’s one in the parking lot of one of the churches in Sechelt and I’ve seen people walking slowly between the painted lines. I know that some use labyrinths as a way to leave the outside world and concentrate the mind. As I stitch, I feel the texture of cotton in my hands, as soft of a work-shirt, and I think of all the hopes I have for both the quilt I am making and the essay I’m writing. Not hopes for them as commodities or as a means to fame and fortune (ha!) but as distillations of everything I feel and know about the world. Of what I don’t know yet and hope to discover as I write and stitch, the beautiful textures revealing themselves slowly, in a way I might not even recognize if not for patience.

I believe the fish will come. The creek is waiting, and the cedars and ferns which will draw up nitrogen from the abundance in the spawned out bodies.

P1090348

The woods were quiet and we almost missed the American dipper who was standing on this branch over a vernal pond, taking a break from its foraging for aquatic larvae.

P1090353

There were raindrops in the pond, only a few, so that you could see the ripples as they spread out over the surface, each ripple moving away from the centre into the unknown.

I will sing the song of the sky

I finished sewing binding on the salmon quilt yesterday and have packaged it up to put in the mail for Forrest and Manon in Ottawa. I am so pleased with how it turned out, though the sewing is clumsy and the squares slightly lopsided. Perfection has never been my goal. I want them to think of this place when they shake it out, lay it on their bed; I hope they will remember the boat trip down Sakinaw Lake to the little bay at the end, where the salmon were congregating before swimming through the fishways and finding their natal streams.

P1070834

I think of this ancient Tsimshian song, sung before the distribution of gifts at a potlatch:

I will sing the song of the sky.

This is the song of the tired —

the salmon panting as they swim up the swift current.

I walk around where the water runs into whirlpools.

They talk quickly, as if they are in a hurry.

The sky is turning over. They call me.