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leaf

When we came blackberry picking in early September, we missed the berries on this low plant, Rubus laciniatus; its fruit ripens after the Himalayan blackberries of early to mid August. In the patch where we went with our buckets, we did pick a bucket of the cut-leaf blackberries. Walking yesterday, I saw a small bird (too quick for me to be more specific) darting in under these strong canes. Even though these are an introduced species, they feed birds, and they feed the bears who are lurking around, waiting for the salmon to enter the creeks. I see seeds in coyote scats up where we pick berries every year. I could have picked a handful yesterday, there were enough for that but I left them, regretting it afterwards. The wonderful American poet Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Blackberry Eating”, ends this way, and making weather adjustments for Vermont, where he lived, and our more balmy west-coast, the timing is just about right:

…the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

I love the term, “introduced species”. It sounds so formal. Too formal, I suspect, for the actual process of plants finding a foothold in a place not their own, or at least not to begin with. They arrive in so many ways, as ballast, mixed with other seed, in imported plant matter, wrapped in damp cotton in the suitcases of those arriving from afar, wanting to bring something of their old lives with them. (There’s a walnut in my little change purse, picked up from a park in Kyiv last month, and some hollyhock seeds from the churchyard in my grandfather’s village.) I’m not making light of what can be hugely and dangerously problematic: an invasive species edging out a native one, creating imbalances in ecosystems, and everything else that can and does happen. But I think of the benefits too, though predicting them, weighing them against the damage, is not science I’m qualified to engage in. How many gardeners choose seeds that remind them of plants their parents or their grandparents grew? One of my favourite tomatoes is Black Krim, with origins in Crimea. I don’t grow many potatoes but like to have a few hills of French fingerlings, with their buttery yellow flesh suffused with pink veins.

In Ukraine last month, I loved the fields of sunflowers in the western part of the country, grown for their oil. The fields went on for miles, as lush and vivid as sunlight. They are mainly Black Peredovik sunflowers apparently and now I wonder if those are also the seeds I buy for the bird-feeders in winter? The seed I am currently hand-feeding, in small amounts, to my morning breakfast companion, who eats a few and takes the surplus away to store. I’m going to plant a few next spring to see what happens. I’ll look forward to this over the coming winter, with its long cold days. Here is the bird, paused between seeds.

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I am grateful these days to the colour of blackberry leaves, the morning cry of the Steller’s jay in the fir outside my kitchen, the scent of cedar kindling catching in the woodstove in the morning. The other day, as light was falling, I heard geese against the mountain, though I couldn’t see them because of all the cloud. But think of them! Following a signal and a map that we know nothing of, making their scribble against the sky, turning and calling to one another in clouds, and in darkness. I paused on the side of the highway on my way back from the mailbox. Galway Kinnell again:

What do they sing, the last birds
coasting down the twilight,
banking
across woods filled with darkness, their
frayed wings
curved on the world like a lover’s arms
which form, night after night, in sleep,
an irremediable absence.

“Wing feathers of jay”

wing feathers of jay

I thought of the blue that my eye had conjured within itself, the colour I try to find through dyes and other pigments (the ceiling in the room where I am typing is a deep blue, as close to the Scrovegni ceiling painted by Giotto in the early 14th c for which he used lapis lazuli ground and mixed with binding agents, as close to that blue as I could get, using a guidebook from the chapel and the scanner at the hardware store). I thought of the blue I dreamed, just out of reach when I woke next morning, and how I’ve tried to find ways of mixing it, recipes for it. In Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, we’re told that “Indigo Blue, is composed of Berlin Blue, a little black, and a small portion of apple green.” And Prussian Blue? (“Beauty spot of wing on Mallard Drake.”) Well, it’s “Berlin blue, with a considerable portion of velvet black, and a small quantity of indigo blue.” And Berlin Blue? (“Wing feathers of Jay.”): “Berlin Blue, is the pure, or characteristic colour of Werner. W.” Who was Werner, you ask? He was Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), a mineralogist and geologist born in Prussian Silesia who developed a scheme for identifying minerals by key characteristics. His work was furthered by Patrick Syme (1774-1845) who extended Werner’s charts to include natural history.

When you fall into the rabbit hole of pigments and how they were developed, you could tunnel down forever. You’d find the origins of Prussian Blue, a story involving a toxic compound called Dippel’s oil (created by its namesake as an alchemical attempt to make an elixir of immortality, containing crushed animal bones and blood) accidentally added to a vat of red dye composed of crushed insects, iron sulphate, and potash. The result was a colour that the world was waiting for and embraced with such enthusiasm that it was used for everything from colouring tea to military uniforms to the palette of Picasso where it inspired his blue period. A slight variant of the pigment was manufactured in China, named Berlin Blue, exported to Japan where it appeared as the key colour of Hokusai’s beautiful views of Mount Fuji, in part because of its ability to lend depth to sky and water.

–from “The Blue Etymologies”, an unpublished essay

pumpkin seeds for lunch

“…all the blues there are.”

jay.jpg

It’s been a long winter and we’re now a couple days into spring. I know I’ve written before that my mother always had something she was working on, knitted or crocheted, over the winter, insisting that she didn’t want the months to pass without something to show for it. Well, she was raised a Presbyterian so it was hard for her to believe that the devil wouldn’t find work for idle hands. And I’d like to think that I know that important things can happen in the mind, in the imagination. The winter passes, an extended essay is written, books are read, friendships are maintained, relationships with my children, my grandchildren, my beloved husband. But I am my mother’s daughter and yes, I am glad to have something to show for the months inside, near the fire, while rain or snow fell, or the nights were long and dark. Working on this quilt was like working with stars, a dusky sky (the sky at 5 in winter, sun just down), cold water, the spirals taking me into deep thought, shell buttons catching the light. I cut the last threads half an hour ago.

finished!

I love the poems of the late Robert Francis. They have a quiet practicality and are observant in the best way. Here’s one for the end of winter, for blue and all its manner of colour, of mood. I’ve seen those rows of hills, the water, ice, and his bluejay is a cousin at least of our Steller’s jay, the one who shouts from the post just beyond the window.

Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the bluejay’s double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.