“And all the lives we ever lived”

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“And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves.” — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Yesterday I surprised myself and finished the novella I’ve been working on. I knew I was somewhere near the conclusion but as I didn’t know what would ultimately happen, I didn’t see the end coming until I was actually there.
(When I say I “finished”, what I mean is that I completed a first draft. The next step is to print it out because I can never do a substantial edit before I see what the work looks like as a physical text. Some people can scroll through pages on a screen and understand where they are in the work as a whole and how each chapter (or section, in my case) relates to the others. But I can’t. I like to sit with an actual draft and a pen and scribble on paper as I read.)
I’ve noted before that this is probably a novella that will not be published. It’s a strange sort of meta thing. The narrator is writing a thesis on the work of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson and she frequently refers to their writing. She is notating a map with places and moments in their fiction and the reader imagines a map with actual passages from various books. A scholar writing a thesis wouldn’t have to worry (I don’t think) about securing permission to use the quoted material because it’s considered fair use for critical purposes. But as this is a work of fiction, the situation is a bit more complicated. And potentially prohibitively expensive. That’s what I mean by “meta”. Or maybe I don’t. This novella is a strange sort of hybrid. And I loved every minute of its creation.

Last week I met with the Special Collections librarian and archivist at the University of Victoria about papers (mine, and John’s) and they showed me one of the Margaret Peterson works held by the Legacy Gallery at UVic. It’s a huge tempera on panel and when I saw it, I thought two things. One is that Margaret Peterson belongs in this novella and so now she’s there. (There’s that meta idea again: in my own life, I met her and her husband Howard O’Hagan once. The narrator of the novella is, in a way, the person I would have been if I’d pursued a degree in Canadian Literature instead of becoming a writer.) The other is that the painting would make a perfect cover image.

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At this point in my life, I am grateful to be able to sit at my desk and construct a work in which worlds are superimposed on one another, the real and the imagined. Grateful to spend time in the grace and beauty of language and rivers, bluebunch wheatgrass and Ponderosa pines. Where coyotes appear out of folds in the hills and history glosses the landscape like a weathered homestead where someone still makes a daily fire and tends to the animals.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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distil

distilʹ, v.i. & t. (-ll-). Trickle down; come or give forth in drops, exude; turn to vapour by heat, condense by cold, & recollect (liquid); extract essence of (plant etc., or fig. Doctrine etc.); drive (volatile constituent) off or out by heat; make (whisky, essence) by distillation; undergo distillation. So ̴ lAʹTION n., ̴ lʹatORY a. [ME, f. OF distiller, L DI1(stillare drop)

I use my dictionary all the time, my 1964 fifth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I bought it to celebrate my new vocation as a university student in the fall of 1973. Maybe even the last day of August (though I know of course that there are still three weeks of summer left), as I nervously checked my textbook lists, my binders, the tires of my bicycle (for I cycled to the University of Victoria from Royal Oak in those days, up Quadra to McKenzie and along McKenzie to the campus). There were still a few places on McKenzie where I could stop to visit with horses in those years. Hard to believe now.

So this morning, looking at the pantry shelves, at the preserving I did this weekend, I thought of the word “distil”. Yesterday 4 pounds of tomatillos were distilled into 6 jars of salsa verde. That pile of tomatillos, the onions peeled and quartered, the pile of cilantro, the elegant long peppers from the planter on the upper deck, and a handful of fierce little peppers from my friend June — the heaps of vegetables reduced to a few jars of salsa. But what salsa! It tastes delicious and when I open a jar in winter, when I poach eggs (duck eggs if I’m lucky) in it and savour each aromatic mouthful on a corn tortilla, I’ll remember the paradox of the plenty cooked down into essence.

That was the second batch of salsa verde. And there are many jars of pickled beans, another distillation: tender beans, fresh dill snipped from its pot, garlic from the ropes of it still hanging in the woodshed, some salt, some vinegar, a handful of mustard seed, a small chili pepper tucked into each jar. There are jars of blackberry jam, gooseberry jam, jelly made with Himrod grapes given us by Harold Rhenisch and flavoured with rosemary and lime zest. Still to come: spicy red pepper jelly (a family favourite with lamb), maybe rosehip jelly (because otherwise the squirrels station themselves by my second-story bedroom window and throw the hips to the ground below; they’ve been throwing fir cones to the ground for a few weeks now, hitting the plywood covering the kindling pile so that we wake close to dawn to the sound of shots. What was that? What was that? And then sink back, realizing it’s the squirrels. Again.) The deer have already eaten all the low-growing crabapples but there are plenty in another tree for bears to return to, as they do every fall, and they’re welcome to the scabby fruit, though I hate it when they tear a branch in their eagerness to pick every apple.

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Reading my dictionary this morning, I thought how glad I am to have a few old skills. Food preserving, quilting (for there is one in the works for an event later this fall), even decoding a word and its origins in a 1964 edition of OED. We have two sets of the dictionary in its larger incarnation, in two volumes. Well, no. We have three sets. We have one set of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a gift to John from me about 15 years ago, bought at Macleod’s Books in Vancouver, missing its case but a treasure. And then we received the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes as an incentive for (re)joining the Folio Society. When it arrived, we realized it was missing a section of pages or had been misbound somehow. (When I look at it now, I see only that there are some pages repeated, out of sequence, and I don’t use it enough to be familiar with its tricks.) The Folio Society cheerfully sent another set. I don’t imagine there are huge numbers of people wanting a dictionary in two volumes, for which a magnifying glass at the very least is required. (I’ve given up on those and bought reading glasses.) But it’s good to have these books for when you do need an authoritative source and online dictionaries are not that, or not to me anyway. In some ways our world is moving away from such notions — of ultimate authority, linguistic, orthographic, or otherwise —  but although communities use language and keep it lively and generative, they don’t always keep its long history in their memories. I’d been thinking of distillation as essence, as something (like 4 pounds of tomatillos) reduced to its essential flavour. But that’s process, really, and there’s so much more at play (and at work) in the word itself and its origins. And one word leads to another, either through its own relationships or simply by those around it on the page. The word before “distil” in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary is “distichous”, a word I’ve never seen before. And what does it mean? “Having fruit etc. arranged in two vertical lines on opposite sides of stem.” Yet it’s a form of phyllotaxis, which I’ve recently read a fair bit about (so maybe I just kind of skimmed over “distichous” if it appeared) for the long essay I wrote, “Euclid’s Orchard”.

Phyllotaxis is the term used for the study of the order of the position of leaves on a stem, how the spiral arrangement allows for optimum exposure to sunlight. I think of my children, my brothers, our parents and grandparents and all the generations of the spiral arranged on our own family tree. We are a case study in phyllotaxis, all of us absorbing the light, all of us contributing (“The whole is greater than the part”), even in death, to the ongoing life and vitality of the tree. Though by now, who knows its genus, its specific name.

We have a fire this morning, the first in months, the sweet smell of burning fir taking the damp out of the air, calling me to note the change in weather, season, to celebrate plentitude and to remember the beautiful utility of my small desk dictionary.