“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river

“We are flotsam…”

magnetic north

My Edmonton family gave me Jenna Butler’s Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard for my birthday a few weeks ago. It’s a beautiful book, brief in the way a book can be when it knows exactly what it wants to do. This one takes you on a (brief) voyage on a sailing ship carrying researchers, artists, and writers along one coast of Spitsbergen Island, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The island was a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers. The bone beds of the
whaling stations, the outposts with their ragged timbers overlooking
the straits. Each thing that lives its space on the island casts some small
shadow, a sundial arm of birth and death. Only humans in this place
foreshorten the clock, turn away those about to die, to be born.

I’ve thought a lot about this book since I read it last week. It straddles genre in a way. It’s given this classification on the publisher’s page:

Subject(s): TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues, SCIENCE / Global Warming & Climate Change, SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Ecology, Climate change, The North / Environment / Travel / Women’s Studies, Ecological science, the Biosphere, LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Canadian

Yes, it’s all those things. Jenna notes the signs of climate change, the geology of Spitsbergen, the tiny Arctic willows, saxifrage, the kittiwakes, the weather; and hers is an ardent eye: “To watch a glacier calve is to watch time run in both directions at once.”

It’s also poetry. Some might call it prose-poetry but I’d suggest the line breaks are important in a lyric context. The language is taut and transparent as ice. You see through the lines into the air and water, where a minke whale breaches, and where midden heaps are visible from sea. Each short section contains sufficient observation and imagery to allow the imagination to expand in the long hours of daylight.

In a way, this book is almost perfect and its beauty is in the restraint of its author. I think that another writer, another publisher might well have wanted more. A travelogue/essay collection of 100 pages is the literary equivalent of a novella, a suite of poems, and how often we are told that such books are simply not cost-effective? I never thought as I was reading Magnetic North that it should have been longer. Yet I was surprised (and delighted) with the physical qualities of the book itself, the attention given it by a designer (the pages are uncluttered and open, the sections feature black and white photographs that elegantly take the reader into the text, there are French flaps, a beautiful cover). It’s not that I think all travel books (or essay collections) should be this size, with the elegant brevity of this narrative; but I’m so glad that the University of Alberta Press gave this particular book such a classy presentation.

We carry this space with us when we go.

In photographs and recordings, etchings and climate data, we carry
the feel of a Svalbard summer. On the sun-brittled carapaces of prairie
sailboats, I’ll find my feet and bear down; I’ll cast back to Antigua’s
decks, the come-from-away skeletons of the whaling stations under
endless noonhour sun.

The way of all expeditions: at the end, a slow fragmenting, everyone
compassed towards home. Pyongyang and Halifax, Seattle and
Sacramento, London, the Alberta bush. We are flotsam, travelling
greedy tides back to our own small spaces of dark. Our own
welcome nights.