from a work-in-progress

jocko creek horses

Four stones, one to anchor each corner of the map. A soft pencil to make the marks. A notebook with research materials stuck in at appropriate places: articles photocopied in the university library, letters from scholars, some phrases I hoped would let me get closer to these writers — “…the formidable power of geography determines the character and performance of a people.” (Love and Salt Water) A small album of pictures, some of them photographs I’d taken on previous trips, attempts to identify specific places; some of them images clipped from magazines or literary journals: Ethel Wilson in a kimono, Sheila Watson with the inevitable cigarette. My advisor kept, well, advising me to seek them out – both were still alive – to talk to them about their work but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. I didn’t know the questions I wanted to ask, not in words, though my map was dense with them. Rivers curled like interrogative marks, roads petering out, the dot of a community and no indication of how to get there, by water or by track. The pine needle I’d stuck to the map with resiny fingers showed me the distance I’d come from the Lac Le Jeune Road to the Deadman River. Four stones to anchor the map and a long-antennaed beetle finding its way across it.

notes from (nearly) spring

It’s cold this morning, a relative thing I know, as it’s a coastal cold:  drizzly rain, the aftermath of wind, trees heavy with water, not snow. And by my front door, a reminder that spring is just around the corner:

front door

It’s the time of year when the heart wants both to be home, taking care of the tomato seedlings and the wonderful pea sprouts  —  particularly the Mendel peas, which I’d thought were lost after none grew last year, or at least none survived the mice and birds who kept plucking out the sprouts for their sweetness; but then I found a tiny envelope with 10 seeds from 2014. These have been planted inside and won’t go out until they’re too big to attract attention! So back to the heart and what it wants. To be home and to be elsewhere, the beautiful Thompson Plateau for instance, where the character in my current work-in-progress is searching for the landscapes of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson:

(from her notes)

A geological guidebook:
limestone; castellated lava hoodoos eroded by streams, extreme weather; red-rock pinnacles; silt bluffs from glacial meltwater and sinkholes; the scent of copper, lure of gold in the Highland Valley, mountains moved for the minerals and metals in granite; ancient communities in the mudstone and volcanic ash layers east of Cache Creek, forests of dawn redwoods, white cedars, sassafras and gingkos recumbent in the layers, along with tiny sleeping eosalmo driftwoodensis, earwigs, craneflies, dragonflies perfect in their physiology, reticulated and tumbling flower beetles, wasps, stick insects; rusting iron pebbles on the bed of the Tranquille River; grasslands of hummocks and tiny beautiful kettles fringed with soft grasses over glacial debris north of the Thompson.

To be near my children and my grandchildren (all 2 1/3 of them!), though that will come, in a few weeks (Victoria), a month (Edmonton), and two months (Ottawa). To drive away with field-guides and coffee in the travel mug and a rain-jacket just in case, stopping at every little museum or roadside attraction, sleeping in motels in small towns, walking out in the morning to see what people who live there see every day: a bridge over the Fraser River, the talus slope on the other side, a camel barn turned into a theatre, bluebirds, the wide sky.

But for today: a snipping of miners lettuce,

miners lettuce

a little jug of daffodils, some music, the warmth of the fire, and the incessant sound of the male Oregon junco who keeps visiting every window and the shiny metal chimney to attack his reflection, his rival.

small packages

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As Christmas approaches, I’ve been shopping and making — and trying to remain true to my belief that good things come in small packages. With my family, it’s not difficult. We’ve never gone into the season with the sense that we had to go into debt or buy big electronic items or expensive bijoux. And it’s lovely to find the right thing, to know it as you see it, or to find the materials in your own surroundings. To plan the baking — white chocolate fruit cakes, savoury rosemary shortbread, gingerbread people with smartie buttons and silver dragee eyes. (I once tried to use a piping device to do fancy work with icing and failed miserably.)

I’m also having an interesting time discussing a new project with my friend Anik See in Amsterdam. Both of us have novella manuscripts which haven’t (yet) been able to find publishers. (Anik has published a novella, postcard, as part of her fiction collection, poscard and other stories; and I’ve published one, Inishbream, and have another, Patrin, forthcoming from the inspiring Mother Tongue Publishing in September, 2015.) Like John and I, Anik has a printing press and has designed and created some beautiful books through her Fox Run imprint. When she was here in September, on her way back to Amsterdam from three months as writer-in-residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, we continued talking about the idea (the madness?) of beginning a small imprint to publish novellas (and maybe some other forms not high on the lists of most commercial publishers). We’d probably begin with our work, my Winter Wren and Anik’s Cabin Fever, mostly because of logistics. We have them ready and we trust one another enough to work together in this way. She’s adept at page design, we have some sense of the market for these titles, and we don’t have illusions about commerical success.

Both of us love novellas. We love beautiful books. And we believe that there should be room in the literary conversation for this form. So we intend to try to expand the conversation, not with the intention of silencing any other voices but simply to ensure that the quiet ones continue to be included.  There are sure to be difficulties but is that a reason not to try? Nope.

Last night I finished re-reading Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s, before her extraordinary (and hugely influential) The Double Hook. It’s a hermetic story, set at Dog Creek in the Cariboo, in winter, and the language is precise and chilly, perfectly suited to the human relationships in the contained world of this novella.

As Miriam reached up the move the lamp Stella noticed the curve of her hip under the gold-haired brown wool of her Harris tweed skirt and the light bathing her braided hair as water bathes pebbles in the creek.

Nor in things extreme and scattering bright — no not in nothing — certainly not in nothing. Why, Stella thought, slipping from the literacy of the past into the literacy of the present, must the immediacy of the moment act itself out in the klieg light of a thousand dead candles.

She rose quickly from the end of the camp cot on which she was sitting and, going to the bucket, poured a dipper of water into the white enamelled hand-basin.

Is supper ready? she asked.

I think of a shelf of Canadian literature — or the literature of any civilized culture — missing this book and others, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, Barbara Lambert’s Message for Mr. Lazarus, Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, and so many others, simply by virture of their size, and it determines me to continue my discussions with Anik. Stay tuned!

“…deeper than anyone knows.”

P1100565We know autumn is coming. The sun comes over Mount Hallowell an hour and a half later than it did when we drank our coffee on the upper deck and thought about all the things we would accomplish in summer. So much of it is still undone, at least from my perspective. Garden unweeded, relationships untended, some of them. But the pantry shelves are lined with preserves, the tomato plants are still producing their beautiful red fruits, I’ve filled a basket with squash,
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and the flowers bloom as though frost was simply a rumour — as it is at this point in the year.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
                                               (from “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur)
On Long Beach the other day, I thought of the way I wanted to write the novella I’ve recently begun, a reflective (and reflexive) book about a brother and a sister and a river. It will pay homage to writers who’ve explored the same territory — Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson. I’m thinking of Lytton and the place where the Thompson River meets the Fraser, how it looks this time of year, the sumac turning red and the rabbitbrush vivid yellow on the roadside between Lytton and Spences Bridge. The beautiful changes. It’s always exciting to be at the start of something — a season, a story. And to feel the cadences of both begin to pull me in.

“I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”