“common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe”

Yesterday a climate scientist from Stanford University was interviewed on one of the local CBC programs. He was talking about the current biodiversity crisis known as the sixth extinction. I listened and found myself crying at the damage our species has done to this beautiful planet. And as if to drive his point home in the event anyone was still doubtful about the severity of this crisis, the scientist said, Well, look at what you’re experiencing in B.C. right now. A drought unlike any you’ve seen.

He was right. May and now June have broken the records for low rainfall. I remember one shower in May. We had a little bit last Thursday but nothing before, or after. Usually June is a wet month and we make a fire in our woodstove most mornings. But not this year. It’s supposed to rain today and there was a tiny bit of mist mid-morning which I suspect is the extent of it. We have a well and so far, so good. And we’re planning to set up cisterns to capture and store water off the roof when it does begin to rain again. (Thanks to urging from son Forrest in Ottawa who has two rain-barrels…) Such a system never seemed necessary before but now it does. It’s June 24 and already some of the tomatoes on the upper deck are beginning to ripen. I’ve gardened here for 30 years and tomatoes have never ripened before mid-July.

We’re preparing to leave tomorrow for a few nights with our grand-daughter in Edmonton. So that means a lot of watering today and the good graces of our neighbour Doreen who will come to water the tomato plants on Saturday. (They’re in big pots, about 20 of them, and they dry out quite quickly.) I had to stop at one point during the watering of the upper deck, though, because this corner (you can see my clumsy sign naming it Rose Corner) was so beautiful. A big swallowtail butterfly was pausing on the roses, a hummingbird was darting among them, and big bees were entering the throats of the nasturtiums and coming out with their pollen sacs laden. (Though when I came out with a camera, they’d disappeared…)

rose corner

A frog was crouched on a cane of honeysuckle under an eave, waiting for me to finish so he could find a cool place under the green leaves. These are things I love and to think of them in jeopardy makes me feel so helpless. A cistern against the drought? Too little, too late?

Is it silly to think of magic? To read Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough and think about trying some of these techniques at home? If you hear a loud hammering on a kettle tonight, it might be us.

OF THE THINGS which the public magician sets himself to do for the good of the tribe, one of the chief is to control the weather and especially to ensure an adequate fall of rain. Water is an essential of life, and in most countries the supply of it depends upon showers. Without rain vegetation withers, animals and men languish and die. Hence in savage communities the rain-maker is a very important personage; and often a special class of magicians exists for the purpose of regulating the heavenly water-supply. The methods by which they attempt to discharge the duties of their office are commonly, though not always, based on the principle of homoeopathic or imitative magic. If they wish to make rain they simulate it by sprinkling water or mimicking clouds: if their object is to stop rain and cause drought, they avoid water and resort to warmth and fire for the sake of drying up the too abundant moisture. Such attempts are by no means confined, as the cultivated reader might imagine, to the naked inhabitants of those sultry lands like Central Australia and some parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, where often for months together the pitiless sun beats down out of a blue and cloudless sky on the parched and gaping earth. They are, or used to be, common enough among outwardly civilised folk in the moister climate of Europe. I will now illustrate them by instances drawn from the practice both of public and private magic.
Thus, for example, in a village near Dorpat, in Russia, when rain was much wanted, three men used to climb up the fir-trees of an old sacred grove. One of them drummed with a hammer on a kettle or small cask to imitate thunder; the second knocked two fire-brands together and made the sparks fly, to imitate lightning; and the third, who was called “the rain-maker,” had a bunch of twigs with which he sprinkled water from a vessel on all sides. To put an end to drought and bring down rain, women and girls of the village of Ploska are wont to go naked by night to the boundaries of the village and there pour water on the ground.  (from The Golden Bough)

day of the wren

December 26th, day of the wren:

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
His body is little but his family is great
So rise up landlady and give us a trate.
And if your trate be of the best
Your soul in heaven can find its rest.
And if your trate be of the small
It won’t plaze the boys at all.
A glass of whiskey and a bottle of beer
Merry Christmas and a glad New Year.
So up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wran.

Wrens have a special place in my heart. All winter, a tiny one hunts just outside my study window first thing in the morning, hopping along the railing of the little porch there and then darting in and out of the rush birdhouse hanging under the eaves. It’s looking for spiders and other food, I know, but I think of it as a muse. A few years ago I sat at my desk most mornings, working on a novella I called Winter Wren, set on the west coast of Vancouver Island; its structure explores the lore associated with the hedge king, the king of all birds. I re-read Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough which I’d first encountered as an undergraduate in the last century. Its detailed descriptions and contextualizations of the rituals of life, death, and rebirth, and the variant myths in every culture fascinated me as much the second time around.

So imagine my pleasure yesterday morning when I opened this gift from my daughter Angelica:

P1110013And from Forrest and Manon, in Ottawa, came this beautiful little Anishinabe basket, bought when Forrest visited Manitoulin Island in the summer:

P1110010It’s birch bark with sweetgrass woven around the rim and base and the decoration is dyed porcupine quills. (The flower on the lid looks like blue flax to me.)

From John, silver earrings as delicate as spider webs, a wonderful new atlas (he said, “You spend such a lot of time looking at the old one and so much of it isn’t accurate any more!”), and an android tablet which has me kind of nervous — I’m not good at learning new things — but also relieved to know that I can load up library books on it to take on travels. One of my greatest fears is running out books to read when we’re away from home and as we like to travel light, filling my suitcase with books instead of clothes doesn’t make sense. It took me awhile to acknowledge that an e-reader might just be a good idea so check in again, in March, when I’m in Portugal and I’ll report how it’s going…

And tomorrow, another gift: the arrival of Brendan, Cristen, and grandbaby Kelly. It will be Kelly’s first visit to her paternal grandparents and we are so happy they’re coming.