a wild orchestration


On a walk up the Malaspina trail yesterday, coyote scats everywhere, full of hair and new grass. This is a sign of spring as much as daffodils and salmonberry blossoms (though yesterday we didn’t see a single one). Last week, an ambulance sounded its siren as it came down the long hill near us, on its way to an emergency in Egmont or Earls Cove. And as soon as the siren stopped, we heard the pair of coyotes denning just to the south of our house sing their own version of the siren’s song, two voices rising and falling, in a complex and beautiful harmony. In the title essay of my book Euclid’s Orchard, there are coyotes singing and they might even be the same animals as the ones last week. I’ve always loved the continuities, the cycles.

We knew about the coyotes because they left scats on our driveway, in the hollows of moss in the orchard, on the nearby trails we hiked regularly, and even along the highway we walked to collect our mail at the community boxes about half a mile away. Every time we walked, we saw the scats. If we were on a trail, the scats were in the middle. The animals wanted anyone using the trail to know they’d been there. On the edges of the highway—a sign that the animals had mastered the knowledge of traffic—the piles were right on the human-worn margins.

And they were—are—fascinating. Coyotes are omnivores. They eat rodents, frogs and other amphibians (but not toads because their skins are bitter), reptiles, fish, crustaceans, birds, larger mammals that they can either kill or scavenge, grass (which helps them to digest fur and bones, I’ve read, and which also serves to scour parasites from their intestines), birdseed, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables.Once we watched a young pup hold salal branches down with its foot so it could reach the ripening berries, plucking them delicately one at a time. We’ve noticed more fur and bones in spring, when rodent populations are highest. And sometimes the scats seem to be composed entirely of grass. Once, the head and neck of a garter snake, scales still intact. Bloody flesh gives them a darker color. Fruit— crabapples, wild cherries, even elderberries–give them bulk. Seeds and fur make them grey. And if they’re lucky enough to find a source of dry dog or cat food, the scats resemble those of canines.

Even though they were mostly invisible, we knew they were around and felt lucky when we saw them. Luckier still when we heard them. We live far from the nearest village and can usually hear emergency vehicles coming from a distance. But if there are coyotes in the immediate vicinity, they begin to howl before we hear the sirens, and by the time the ambulance or police car is near our house, on its way to the ferry or to deal with a collision on the highway below us, there’s a cacophony of siren and coyote accompaniment. A wild orchestration for voices and synthesizer—longitudinal waves coming toward us, bending and refracting the long length of the highway. Sound nowhere and everywhere.

“The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain…”

The other day it was 12 degrees here and I went out in a long-sleeved shirt to do some garden work. There aren’t flowers yet, though the small daffodils are in bud and the primulas are nearly blooming. Only a day or so, I thought, as I picked up fallen branches, pulled the mulch aside to see how the garlic was doing. There were even signs of life in the cucumber boxes, though not cucumbers; the miners lettuce I transplanted to one of the boxes is looking very green and bright and there are some little kale volunteers in the other one. In a week or two I’ll be cutting the miners lettuce for salad.

But this morning? Oh, it’s cold again. There were so many stars in the night that I should have known there’d be a frost this morning. So instead of looking for spring flowers in the garden, I’m finding them inside instead. Friends are coming for dinner tonight and I took out one of the linen tablecloths John’s grandmother made for his family after they’d emigrated to Canada. She was an amazing needlewoman, taking classes to learn new stitches and possibilities, and although some of the cloths we have are more sophisticated than this one, none of the others have this colour or exuberance.



There are also primroses stitched into the linen, and nasturtiums, lilacs, violets…

We’re having a spring dinner (sort of), with a Meyer lemon semifreddo for dessert, and we’ll be surrounded by flowers, lit by them too:

june's lamp

I was reading Du Fu this morning and was caught by this beautiful poem. Our country is a bit of a mess this morning, with the Gerald Stanley not-guilty decision causing terrible pain to so many, and the inter-provincial squabbles between B.C. and Alberta about the hazards of increasing bitumen delivery to our coast and Alberta’s embargo of our wines (their loss utterly). There’s solace in ancient poetry, which doesn’t lose its power over the centuries:

The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower’s splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.

“bright in the fertile fields”

look up.JPG

It’s come. more or less on schedule. When I went out this morning, I heard the first varied thrush of the year, whistling in our woods. Yesterday on our walk along one flank of the mountain,  we saw the first salmonberry blossoms and the orchids (Northwestern twayblades) are up along the trail. Just now I went out into the vegetable garden, thinking to do some work, and realized I need gloves. It’s not warm when the sun goes behind clouds but the light is spring light and there are birds everywhere. Robins hopping on the grass and listening, in the way they do. Chickadees and the single nuthatch that travels with them at the feeder, taking turns, the others waiting in the forsythia. Which is blooming! (Just at the tips of the branches. This is a spray I cut the other day for a dinner party and the buds have relaxed in the warm kitchen.)


One of spring’s truest poets is Ovid. This morning I got out my copy of the Metamorphoses, the Rolf Humphries translation (and I’m sure there are more recent ones but this is one I read as a university student in Peter Smith’s class at UVic in, oh, around 1974), and read the beautiful passage on spring:

Notice the year’s four seasons: they resemble
Our lives. Spring is a nursling, a young child,
Tender and young, and grass shines and buds
Swell with new life, not yet full-grown nor hardy,
But promising much of husbandmen, with blossom
Bright in the fertile fields.

So the garlic, not full-grown, but promising (and it’s Metechi in this bed, a variety from Georgia, by way of Lytton) —


— and the rhubarb,


and this little crocus, escaped from a border and happy in the green moss:

free spirit.JPG

The garden’s guardian, an elk skull found up the mountain a few years ago, was covered in snow three weeks ago but now is ready for work.