Last night we arrived home from a few days in Ottawa, celebrating Christmas with our family there. I made stone soup with one little boy, read “The Wheels on the Bus” many times to the other. We ate large meals, we walked (slowly, because of Grandad’s hips) to the park, and we slept in a room completely filled with books. (The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…) This morning I reviewed copy-edits of my novella The Weight of the Heart, due out in spring from Palimpsest Press. When I began to write this novella, the two small boys didn’t yet exist. Yet as I looked at the text this morning, I imagined them into the landscape their dad loved so well. One day we will go there with them and show them everything we love about the dry country in the interior of B.C.
Reading again of the main character Izzy as she searches for the places at the heart of The Double Hook, Swamp Angel, and Hetty Dorval, and as she tries to understand the final days of her brother’s life before he drowned in the Thompson River, I felt myself to be there, in autumn, among the sumac and dried rabbitbrush, the air pungent with sage, weathered wood and lyrical pines at every turn in the road. Writing a book is one thing. Editing it is another. This stage of fine-tuning the language is a gift on the last days of the old year.
Note: 5 years ago, and I’m still thinking about novellas (I was up in the night, working on The Occasions, my novella-in-progress); I still keep Swamp Angel on my desk. (A year ago I had the pleasure of talking to Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition about Ethel Wilson’s book.)
I’ve been rereading my favourite novellas lately, trying to fix in my mind what it is that makes the form so attractive. (Someone, somewhere, wrote that a novella is a bit like a recit in opera but I’d argue against that, I think. Some of them are full of arias, lyrical and serving exactly the same function as, say, an aria in a Handel opera: to balance and contrast the narrative work of the recit.) This afternoon I was reading Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel and came to this beautiful passage:
The sound of the cranes’ silver music approaching in all that silence would take her at once out of a cabin with her broom, and into the open, to look up, to listen, and when they had passed over, to recapture the sight and the silver sound which moved on over other lakes and hills. She would walk up the long overgrown trail to the far end of the lake and, in the evening, approach softly, and stand, waiting to see the heads and backs of beaver in the water, leaving their lodge and returning again. She would hear the gunshot sound of the beaver’s tail upon the water as, startled, he dived. She would examine the stumps of the birches, neatly chiseled to clean points by the sharp teeth…
Swamp Angel is set mostly on Three Loon Lake which I believe is a fictional stand-in for Lac Le Jeune, near Kamloops. We often take the Lac Le Jeune Road when we’re in that area, an old route leading past the Jocko Creek Ranch and past small lakes and the larger Lac Le Jeune. Years ago I camped there with Forrest while on a research trip on the Thompson Plateau and we watched a wood duck hen lead her ducklings down from their nest hole in a tree by the marshy end of the lake. And south of Lac Le Jeune, near Nicola Lake, I once heard the sandhill cranes before I saw them, their singing like creaking wooden wheels across the sky. But what I loved about this passage of Swamp Angel is the bit about the beavers. In a marsh on our route from home to the mailboxes, there’s a small marsh where we hear red-winged blackbirds every spring and occasionally ducks in the more watery areas. But there are two alders on the edge of the marsh and a beaver has been chiseling them for the past week. Every day we say, “It won’t be long now!” and today I asked John to take a photograph when he went alone for the mail. (I was busy getting things ready for a birthday party for him tomorrow!) The photographs are blurry because it’s raining and because, well, it was nearly sunset (just before 4). But it won’t be long!
It’s almost time for bed. I’ve been working at my desk on the first edits for my novella about rivers and women writers and maps (it’s in the process of trying to find a new title for itself because the publisher suggested the one I’d been using wasn’t quite right and her comment rang true), due out next spring from Palimpsest Press. The night is very quiet. So far. Last week the barred owls were hooting up a storm, two of them at least, and every few nights I hear coyotes or loons. Sometimes I wake, thinking I’ve heard a coyote just to the south of the house and realize it’s a loon down on Sakinaw Lake. Or vice versa. A long trembling sound in the dark. There are loons in this book, in the form of a name: Three Loon Lake, the name Ethel Wilson gives to Lac Le Jeune in her Swamp Angel. And there are plenty of coyotes because Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook has a part in the narrative too. I love it when I’m reading a passage and am interrupted by the sounds of the night. Maybe they even influence the rhythms of my writing, long unbroken sentences, then silence. Maybe. I think of what happens when I write about water, how my sentences surge and then slow down, how they whirl and gather, how they pull and retreat. Could it be any other way? If you truly listen, what you write will be full of the world.
Lately there’s been a brown rabbit hanging around (avoiding somehow the coyotes). It was nibbling the tops of dandelions up by the copper beech planted in memory of my parents. Last evening, when I was in the vegetable garden, I heard a loud clanging on one part of the fence but couldn’t see anything. This morning I saw the rabbit crouched by the one spot where a little animal might be able to scoot under the fence, carefully chosen because its mesh is supposed to be too small for anything really to be able to get through. Anything but birds. The robins pass through. So do towhees. So was the rabbit in the garden and did it make the noise going out in a hurry because it saw me? I thought something had been eating the lettuce and it turns out I was right. This morning we put some boards up along the bottom where the gap is and tomorrow we’ll do something a little more permanent. Years ago, decades ago, there were rabbits here, offspring of someone’s domestic bunnies, either escapees or else ones released because of abundance. But then the coyotes arrived and we haven’t seen rabbits for years. I love watching the jackrabbits in Brendan and Cristen’s Edmonton neighbourhood; some mornings you look out and see them crouching on the boulevard. An area with plenty of places for a species to hide and thrive is called a predator shadow and apparently Edmonton is just that. Maybe this particular rabbit has been thinking of my garden as a predator shadow because a coyote could never get through the fence. Thinking of my garden as an easy lunch. But not for long. The beans are in flower and so are the squash. Let the rabbit eat dandelions.
Oh! Just now, a loon. It’s one of the most beautiful sounds I know, lonely and tremulous. Every now and then when we go for our morning swim, we’ll see loons on Ruby Lake. Sometimes a single bird but once, memorably, a mother and her two young. She was teaching them to call and I swam back and forth along the shore listening to her hoot and then the young ones trying to imitate. It was too early for boats so the loon three-part song was the only sound, apart from my splashes as I back-stroked along the shore.
So now I’ll go to bed full of the sound of loons, hoping that the right title will come to me, that I’ll wake early with a phrase sounding itself in my head, wanting to be written down on the scraps of paper I keep by my bed for just those moments. I’m listening, listening.
Earlier this fall, I had a lovely conversation with Michael Enright (of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition) about Ethel Wilson’s beautiful Swamp Angel. Readers of this blog know that she is one of my foundational writers. She brought a feminine, perhaps even feminist, attention to the places and stories of British Columbia, and few writers attended to the landscape as lovingly as she did.
Our interview will air this Sunday morning and I hope you’ll listen. When I have a link to it, I’ll post it in my News and Events area.
“In certain parts of the lake shore there is tulé grass growing out into the water, thick at the shore, thin and sparse as it stretches into the lake. Where the tulé grass – which is a tall reedlike grass – is sparse, its angled reflections fall into the water and form engaging patterns.” (SA, 86)
Turned off again on the road to Lac le Jeune because I wanted to see Three Loon Lake after all, what Ethel Wilson called it in Swamp Angel, though she had other names for it in another stories: Nimpish, Blue, and before it was renamed in the 1930s, in honour of Father Le Jeune, it was Fish Lake. Before that, for thousands of years, it was Chuhwels. She and Wallace loved the lake and took a cabin on the hill above the water, fishing daily for Kamloops trout.
Is the heart still light, does it balance in the scale as light as the feather?
In Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson describes Maggie’s relationship with the lake as a union, like a happy marriage. And the Wilsons were happy. Casting their flies, from a row-boat, in deep water or among the tulé reeds; sharing drinks on the verandah afterwards, the water shimmering with sky. So to give Maggie the lake, with its rich presence, the birds, warm rocks, the pines, and even a gun, the Swamp Angel itself, to drop finally into the water, was to give a woman an everlasting place in a landscape. As horses ran through the grass of the Jocko Creek Ranch, the Two-Bit, and others unknown to me, women loved lakes also unknown to me, but Maggie’s was on any map if you knew the code. Knew the legend.
The lake was gun-metal, rippled, as I approached. No loons but what was that? A moose in the shallows eating reeds. Lily pads glittering, a chill in the air I hadn’t felt at the Two-Bit. But low cabins on one shore, drifting ducks, a dock pushed out into the lake and weathered grey. At the very far end, almost out of sight, a man in a small boat casting. One of those moments. It could have Wallace, it could have been. Ethel on the small deck of the cabin, reading. Ice in a bucket for cocktails late afternoon and a warm fire waiting.
We caught the early ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay so we could poke around in Powell River, then continue on for lunch to the Laughing Oyster at Okeover Inlet. Forrest, Manon, and their children leave tomorrow so we all wanted to do something we’ve done in the past, and loved; a chance to immerse ourselves in the old coast, a place of weathered wood and low storefronts, winding roads leading past stump farms, and everywhere the smell of the sea.
It was a lovely day, the inlets—Jervis and Okeover—soft with mist. Last night, in my bed, I kept remembering a certain turn of the road, the sound of kingfishers, and as I put my book aside, I felt somehow returned to myself, the way a change can do that, or a perfect book, or a combination of both. The book, in this instance, was Deep Hollow Creek, Sheila Watson’s first novella, though it was published long after her iconic The Double Hook. The latter is one of the texts at the heart of my novella-in-progress, which I’ve almost finished writing. (The first draft, at least.) Along with Ethel Wilson’s fine Swamp Angel and Hetty Dorval, it is such an excellent example of how women often write out of a deep engagement with landscape. Their maps are not the maps we usually think of when we explore literary cartography and my book tries to fill in these gaps, enter the contours of their language and attention. In a week or two I will have a draft and then I will know if I’ve done what I’d hoped to do. Sometimes I was lost in the pages of what I was writing, sometimes distracted from them, fearful of them. In the meantime, last night, I read these lines:
For the time being she had lost her bearings, she felt, and been engulfed in the vast rolling waves of the folding and unfolding earth.
And I knew again that Deep Hollow Creek is both a map and a guide, a book that opens a place in the body and says, This is also you, this is also what you know. The unfolding earth, the calm water seen out the window at Okeover Inlet, the islands of Jervis Inlet moving in and out of the mist.
We’ve had a wonderful week with two of our grandchildren, the two from Edmonton, who arrived with their parents, and were ready for books, walks, collecting bouquets of leaves, singing “Over in the Meadow” over and over again, as well as hearing Curious George Goes To The Hospital. John had surgery mid-week so the book was read many times in anticipation of that as well as once he arrived home after a night in the hospital. The grandchildren even visited their grandfather briefly in the hospital. Henry, who is 1, shouted loudly as he presented a branch of berried greenery and a stuffed Santa (self-chosen) that farted “Deck the Halls” when the bum was pressed. Kelly, who is 3, was a little less brave and perhaps disappointed that there were no monkeys sliding down banisters or upsetting dinner carts.
While they were here, I put my own work aside for the pleasure of their company. And this morning, I am finding my way back into it. But a book about the beautiful Thompson and Fraser Rivers, the roads leading to them, and away, has me wishing for a road trip. Not a late fall trip, though. An early summer one, with bluebirds, and pollen, and drifts of arrow-leaved balsamroot. That dry air. The sound of Clark’s nutcrackers.
So I will write about those things instead of walking into sage and rabbit-brush. Instead of stopping to dream my way into abandoned cabins, heating the coffee in a small fire in a ring of stones.
I needed to drive. I needed to drive up the river, try to follow it to Kamloops where I also hoped to find Ethel Wilson, or at least a trace of her on the landscape she’d written about in Swamp Angel. I would be following the river back from where it had claimed you, James, back through its deep canyon in the desert north of Spences Bridge (I felt I knew it intimately between Spences Bridge to Lytton, the section you loved and where, when I swam in its warm waters, I was in your company for a brief and sweet time), gardens and remnants of old orchards on the shrub-steppes between Ashcroft and Kamloops, and maybe beyond, to the more verdant corridors along its southern route from its outlet at Little Shuswap Lake. One day I would also explore its northern arm’s sinuous flow from its glacial origins near Blue River to where it joined the south arm at Kamloops. I wanted to know it all. It was somehow our river, mine and yours. Thinking of it that way made me shiver a little and I tried to ignore the rattling noise my truck made every time I accelerated on the wide sections of the highway.