the things we wake to

At 5:30, the smell of smoke. (Every window open.) Came down to check and yes, there’s a fire nearby, about 15 minutes south of us, on Cecil Hill, overlooking the little townsite of Madeira Park. Where we shop. Where we are preparing for our 15th Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival in August, where my children went to elementary school, where the government wharf is. All morning the water bombers (skimmers, these ones are called) have been swooping down over Sakinaw Lake, the helicopters are dipping their buckets in one of the calm bays nearer the fire. It was 2.25 hectares last night as we were eating mussels at the Backeddy Pub, oblivious, watching for whales (not lucky enough last night). Just now? 5 hectares. And people on evacuation alert.

I didn’t go back to sleep but when I got up a couple of hours later, the rabbit (now we are thinking it’s a snowshoe hare or snowshoe rabbit, Lepus americanus) was grazing peacefully just below the deck off our bedroom. I watched it for quite a while and realized it was eating, almost methodically, yellow hawkweed.

morning hare

We’ve seen it every morning now for the last 6 days, always near the forest edge. They prefer dense understory, apparently, and that’s what we have. That’s what’s burning on Cecil Hill. First thing, the reports were that the trees weren’t on fire but the underbrush and this time of year? Oh, it’s dry. The salal is desiccated in areas, the duff—old leaves, stems, the crisp moss—like fire-starter. Which it is. And has. The Cecil Hill fire is believed to be human-caused.

So smoke and hares and the experience of being elsewhere, in a way, because I’m editing my novella, set mostly around the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, even in them at times. Years ago we took Brendan and Cristen white-water rafting down the Thompson River, from Spences Bridge to Lytton, and at quiet points along the river, the guide encouraged us to swim. I expected it to be cold and it wasn’t, really. It was green and deep and one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, drifting alongside the raft, hanging onto a rope. There are moments like that in the novella, and also much sadder ones, but now I am looking for a title that carries the rivers in it, graceful, dangerous, and deeply historied. I keep making notes but I don’t think I have the right one yet.

These were the things I woke to: the smoke (so evocative in winter, when it’s our own fire in the woodstove, keeping us warm, reminding us of every winter we’ve spent here, building the fire each morning, drawn to it from other parts of the house to talk and share a glass of wine late in the afternoon); the snowshoe hare, like an emissary, its mouth full of hawkweed and its ears twitching; and the prospect of time in the rivers, or near them, if only on paper. Here’s a little passage to remind me, and you, too.

Our bodies are porous. They take in river water, sunlight, the scent of Artemisa frigida, dust from bone dry slopes, dust of bones themselves littered on the talus (bighorn sheep, marmots, the tiny hollow leg bone of birds eaten and excreted by coyotes, sand particles), pollen from ponderosa pines, midges, spores too minute to affect anything other than a lung, fine hairs of mule deer, the stink of migrating salmon. Over us, the deep blue sky, through us the air so warm and clear we breathe it in deeply and it doesn’t seem altered when we exhale yet the work of our bodies is there too. And helium, beryllium, and carbon, iron and nickel, the dust from dying stars.

“I am haunted by waters.”

rivers

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.” — Norman Maclean, from A River Runs Through It

Last night I finished reading The River of Consciousness, the final collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. It’s a beautiful book, full of lively, erudite, and humane explorations of memory, illness, and yes, consciousness. I put it on my bedside table, turned out the light, fell into a deep sleep (helped a little, I have to say, by my homemade tincture), and woke with one thought in my mind. Do rivers themselves have consciousness?

I suspect they do. Think of how often we use river terms for our own metaphorical purposes. River of consciousness. Stream of consciousness (that wonderful narrative device so beloved by the Modernists). Time and the river.

If a dynamic, flowing consciousness allows, at the lowest level, a continuous active scanning or looking, at a higher level it allows the interaction of perception of memory, of present and past. — Oliver Sacks

The photograph above is the moment of the Thompson River entering the larger body of the Fraser River, at Lytton. How long before the Thompson is just a memory of green water in the darker water of the Fraser? What does it retain of its essential self? Its origins, its sediments, its particular history, its…yes, its own fluid memory?

My husband’s new book of poetry is due out from Harbour Publishing later this year. Its title? This Was The River. I’m thinking a conversation about rivers and their own consciousness might well begin this evening, by our fire, over a glass of wine. And later this winter or early spring, overlooking the Thompson and the Fraser, a place we stop every time we drive up Highway 1 into the Interior.

I made some notes this morning and I hope to enter the river of consciousness as well as its obverse during these dark days of January. Maybe most particularly its obverse.

It was somehow our river

above the Fraser

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.

5A

postcards, the Fraser Canyon

One of my favourite drives on earth, through the tunnels, along the Fraser River,  the Ponderosa beginning around Boston Bar and fringing the highway like Japanese wood engravings. The smells, every element in its place — the river and a few raindrops, the soft air (and every house on the Siska Reserve with a screened shed for drying salmon), ochre and flinty soil, the smoke from a distant fire on the west side of the river, brought back to life by the wind. Here’s the Alexandra Lodge, more derelict every year (and for information on the Lodge and its storied history, here’s a wonderful site: http://www.michaelkluckner.com/bciw6alexandralodge.html ) :

alexandra-lodge

 And here’s the Thompson River, losing itself in the grey Fraser:

rivers

It was the Two Rivers Farmers Market in Lytton so we stopped, bought seed garlic to plant when we get home (an Uzbek variety), listened to Willard play old rock numbers on a guitar while the wind blew and the sellers were friendly and you could see why the market was named best small farmers market in B.C. last year. Then we took Highway 12 from Lytton to Lillooet, driving along the river where rabbit brush grew dense and yellow along the roadside, and finding ourselves in the least charming motel we’ve ever stayed at in all our years, though it did look out on a river and even had a single metal chair on its tiny balcony  — though not a single picture on the wall or any kind of decorative element which made me glad we paid a little extra for one of the “view” rooms because we slept with the sliding door open all night to the wind and the sound of a single train below us.

from a work-in-progress, The Marriage of Rivers, because I’m missing Ponderosa pines on a damp February morning

P1100718

 

Here, once more, they drove past the great solitary bull pines with their strongly hatched and corrugated bark – all the delights of this country spoke afresh to Maggie – swelling hills, wild and widespread sage, look! There is a coyote and his coat is the same dun colour as the hill on which he runs purposefully about his business. He vanishes. This was Maggie’s third year in. Breathe this sagey air! See, a bluebird! Floating cloud, drifting scent, tree, wild creature, curving fleeting hill – each made its own statement to Maggie in the imperishable spring. (SA, 205)

The Lac Le Jeune Road swept up and away from the TransCanada just west of Kamloops. And I took the turn, my truck juddering as I slowed down and then stopped on the shoulder. Because there was a bull pine in dry grass, solitary as any god. I knew from reading the field guides that bull pine was a disputed synonym for Pinus ponderosa, our native yellow pine. Some botanists thought it was more accurately a Pinus sabiniana, or gray pine (also called ghost pine or foothills pine for its occurrence in the Sierra foothills of California). Others grouped all the yellow pines – shortleaf, loblolly, slash, Jeffrey – together as bull pines. And some insisted it was really a particularly large and singular specimen of any of these pines. When I grew weary, in my graduate seminars, of the squabbling over the context of a line of Robert Frost or the etymology of some arcane word used by Basil Bunting, I’d remember the botanists, the clumpers and the splitters, and how their arguments echoed the literary ones and I’d want to just get outside. As I was now, on the side of the Lac Le Jeune Road, looking at a tree. Which might have been one of the trees Maggie Lloyd saw as she drove towards her cherished life at Three Loon Lake, away from the small bitterness of her second husband, the odious Edward Vardoe.

Looking at a tree, a long black scar on one side where lightning or a a fire scorched it. And huge plates of bark fitting together like sections of a puzzle. I got out of the truck and walked over to it. Clusters of resin, deep gold, with a few ants trapped inside, as beautiful as amber. Which they were on their way to becoming in the fullness of time, though I wasn’t sure if these pines were known for their amber, unlike Pinites succiniter, also known as Pinus succinifera, or Baltic pine. I broke off a little chunk and wrapped it in a soft mullein leaf which I tucked into my pocket. And looking up, I heard nutcrackers up in the branches, scolding me for interrupting their meal of seeds. This was what I wanted, the ordinariness of birds and pines, not the sorrow of life without you, James. I sunk into the deep duff of needles to cry and after a few minutes, I took out my map and noted the date, the location, and drew a little pine to remind me to look up the passage in Swamp Angel. My fingers were tacky with resin and a little of it stuck to the map. I pressed a single pine needle into it and made sure I refolded the map with that section exposed to air.

My truck wouldn’t start. I turned the key and there was a kind of grinding noise. Then nothing. I sat in the driver’s seat on the edge of the road, my map on the dashboard, and I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I cried. I’m not proud of it but sometimes I feel so helpless and hopeless that I don’t know what else to do. And then someone was knocking on my window.

An older man in overalls with a John Deere cap turned backwards like a catcher. Need help, he asked. And I must have nodded because he was lifting the hood and making noises like Ah huh, and Oh boy. It was the battery and he had jumper cables but they were at his ranch, about a twenty minute drive away. If I wanted to wait, he’d go get them and then we’d see if we could get the truck up and running.

If I wanted to wait. I didn’t see that I had choice and anyway the day was sunny. I walked up beyond the bull pine, beyond, beyond, to where I felt I was on the spine of the earth. Forests and grasslands in all directions, and the long beautiful length of Kamloops Lake, fed and replenished by the Thompson River. A train snaked its way along the far shore, too far away to hear. But I could see the water holding the sky in its wide bowl.

“…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,
P1100566
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.

heaven

We’re back from several days away in the dry B.C. interior where we met up with Brendan and Cristen in Lytton to go white-water rafting on the Thompson River.  The air temperature on Friday was in the high 30s (celsius) and at one point, the owner of the motel where we stayed said it was 40. The water temperature in the Thompson was 19. It was heavenly to paddle down the river, anticipating the rapids, and then enter them, feeling them cascade over the raft, heart racing and skin tingling. We were able to swim at several points and that was so wonderful — to feel my body bouyant in the green water of the Thompson River which I’ve loved all my life. John heard a young woman from another raft say, while swimming, “I am so happy.” I knew just what she meant — we are not often so alive in our bodies, so immersed in air and water and light. It’s 35 km. from Spences Bridge, where the expedition set forth, to Lytton, where we ended up, and Brendan and Cristen laughed when I told some other guests at our motel that we’d paddled that distance. “The river did all the work,” they exclaimed. And yes, it did most of the work, along with our amazing guide, Steve. But we did paddle and my shoulders ached at the end of it! (One of our raft-mates took photographs with a waterproof camera and she said she’d send me some later next week when she returns home so I hope to post some here.)

After saying goodbye to Bren and Cristen yesterday morning — they were continuing on home to Edmonton where they will be preparing to move into the house they just bought —  John and I drove to Lillooet where we saw a bighorn ewe along the road, her lamb beside her, and where grass and pines were so fragrant in the dry air. We took the Duffy Lake back to the coast and were rewarded by this beautiful view of the Place glacier group beyond Duffy Lake.

P1080494

Up this morning to gather the vegetables which ripened in our absence, a basket of summer colour on the worktable.

P1080498