This morning there’s a dusting of new snow on the mountain, winter’s tentative nudge. And on the railing of the porch outside my study window, a wren perched for a few minutes, then investigated the little bird house hanging from the eaves. No one nests in it but in the depths of winter I’ve seen as many as 6 wrens enter at dusk to gather together for warmth. I confess I still call them winter wrens. I knew them before it was decided that there are actually two distinct species in North America and that the ones I’ve loved all my life are more properly Troglodytes pacificus or Pacific wrens. It doesn’t matter. They’re wrens. They are always around in winter, singing in the salal, the woodshed, their song as lovely as anything I’ve ever heard. In my novella Winter Wren, the main character Grace hears them singing near the cabin she’s bought above Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke. She hears them and then she listens to Bach’s Flute Partita in A Minor, the Bourrée anglaise, and realizes that there are intricate convergences.

She was on the porch, wringing the mop over the edge when her favourite movement of the Bach Partita in A Minor, the last, the Bourée Anglaise, began. Leaning on the railing, she loved how the passage floated out in the wintry air, a counterpoint to waves and wind. She hummed a little of it from memory. She’d heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play this in Paris, the amazing backward rhythm of the bourrée balancing the rapid run of sixteenth notes, and ever after thought of it as music she would choose before all else.

It wasn’t until the movement was almost complete that she realized she was hearing another sound, another melody answering the bourrée, ascending as the flute descended. Startled, she looked around, fearful. Was it someone whistling on her property? No, it was a bird. It must be a bird because there wasn’t anyone or anything else in sight. And it came from within the salal on the trail down to the waterfall. Peering into the undergrowth, she came face to face with a tiny dark bird, very pert, bobbing and bending on the stem it had claimed. From its open beak came a long undulating series of notes as melodic as anthing Bach had put to paper.

It was this time of year that my friend Anik See stopped in to visit us on her way back to the Netherlands from a residency at the Berton House in Dawson City. We’d both recently completed novellas and we’d both received many rejections from publishers, who all said something like, Oh, this is lovely work but we can’t publish a novella. Anik and I looked at one another after about the 6th story of rejection and we laughed. You know what this means, one of us said, and in that moment, our little imprint fishgottaswimeditions.com  was born. We decided to start with one of our novellas because then, if the whole enterprise didn’t work, there’d be fewer people to disappoint. We decided on Winter Wren (and I’m hoping Anik will consider including her Cabin Fever on our list too). We’ve published 4 novellas thus far: Winter Wren was followed by Frances Boyle’s Tower which in turn was followed by Barbara Lambert’s Wanda and our most recent title was Jennifer Falkner’s Susanna Hall, Her Book. You can visit our website (linked above) for more information.

Because I’ve been visited by the wren and because I just washed the bowl that was used for the cover of Winter Wren and I’m reminded all over again of these birds in the low brush, their song, I’m offering copies of my novella for $10 plus postage (currently $3.50 in Canada, $5.50 to the US, and I don’t know how much to other places right now but I’d simply charge the cost).

winter gifts at High Ground

I know Christmas is more than a month away but if you’re thinking about gifts, we can make it simpler for you by offering some of our own books, limited edition chapbooks, and broadsheets printed on our late 19th c. Chandler & Price platen press for sale during the season.

mud bottom

For example, John’s Mud Bottom (details here) is $35. If you buy a set of the Companions Series Broadsheets (also here), a folio of 12 letter press broadsheets including poems by Gillian Wigmore, Russell Thornton, and Maleea Acker written in reponse to other poems printed enface, priced at $150, then we will include a copy of Mud Bottom for free with your order.

winter books

For a selection of our books, including my Euclid’s Orchard, Winter Wren, The Age of Water Lilies, Inishbream, Patrin, A Man in a Distant Field, and Red Laredo Boots, and John’s crawlspace (winner of the 2012 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Forecast (Selected Early Poems: 1970-1990), and This Was the River. the deal is this: buy one at cover price and receive a second book of your choice for 50% off. We’ll happily inscribe the books. Postage will be charged at cost.

If there are other books you’re interested in or you see something on the High Ground page (including chapbooks, individual broadsheets, including Michael Ondaatje’s “Breeze”), please ask us. And if you think that background scarf on which the books recline is as ravishing as I think it is, visit Caroline Jonas’s website. (I recently ordered the scarf as an early Christmas gift from my husband because he won’t be able to shop this year!)

the decades


I looked out just now to see if there’s the first snow on the mountain because it feels cold enough down here. There isn’t yet, but I bet it’ll come by next week. I love the cold nights, stars, that beautiful scimitar moon in the mid-November dark sky.

I just made a (clumsy) linocut for this year’s Christmas card. A winter wren, with a slightly foreshortened beak and awkward legs. (The lino was brittle this year, even when warmed by the woodstove.) I’ve chosen a short passage from my novella, Winter Wren, and John will print later this week.

Every year I make a linocut and he sets type and prints a card. I remember the first one we created, in the basement of the house we rented in North Vancouver before moving here in December of 1982, after a year and a half of living first in a tent here, then the shell of our house while we made it comfortable enough to live in. That first card used some old wooden type that came with the press and we had enough to print just two words: LOVE&JOY, all in caps, with the beautiful ampersand.

How the years accumulate. I listened to Emmylou Harris while I worked on the lino and realized I’ve been one of her biggest fans, boots and all, since grade 11. 1972. But I don’t think I ever paid much attention to this beauty, the one that caught my heart this afternoon.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll go to Edmonton (speaking of cold) to spend time with our family there. Emails arrive, asking would we like to go for a sleigh ride on Whyte Avenue, would we like to go to an abbreviated Nutcracker (our grandchildren are 2 and 4), and what about a Dickens tea? I remember carving lino in the early year with an audience, my own children, young enough to be impressed by a small knife making images in a piece of lino warmed by the woodstove. Young enough to listen to any music I played, and yes, there was a lot of Emmylou Harris even then. I wanted to preserve time in the images I cut with my little box of tools. I still do. John’s been sorting the decades of Christmas cards to make sure we have a full collection for the High Ground Press archive and there they are—a house on a hill with a moon overhead; a cat in a window with a star by its ear; a tree by the front door; a gingerbread person; a snowflake; a pinecone; the two fish undulating under stars (the image Anik and I appropriated for our Fish Gotta Swim Editions pressmark); a fishing boat with bright lights on its rigging (inked in by hand); and more that I can’t remember right now.

Sometimes I forget what’s to come. In late summer, preserving fruit and vegetables, I forget that I’ll be here in the house on a cold day in November, wondering what might make a card image for this coming Christmas. Or that listening to a cd heard hundreds of times over the years, I’ll stop as Emmylou sings,

So blind I couldn’t see
How much she really meant to me
And that soon she would always be
On my mind, in my heart,
I was blind from the start

“…who notices the cloth-gowned scholar?”

last year's quilt

The winter wren has begun to visit most mornings, perching on a chair outside my study window, peering in, then skitting up to a rattan birdhouse to check it for spiders. Every year I forget and every year I am reminded, when this happens, that they are secret birds, with careful habits, and when I see this one, I know where I am in the year.


At this point in my life, it’s all about patterns. Reading my entry from November 1st last year—https://theresakishkan.com/2017/11/01/finding-my-way-into-winter/—I see that I was stacking wood (due to a health malady on the part of my husband, whose job this usually is). Last night, around supper time, a guy delivered a load of fir, right on time. (John’s been cutting and splitting wood here, too, but there wasn’t enough to last the cold months; we burn 3 or 4 cords.)

Last year I was stitching the quilt at the beginning of this entry, from linen I’d tied and dipped in indigo dye. I backed it with warm red flannel and it’s on a couch, for cold evenings. This year? I have another length of the linen, not quite so deep a blue, but I’m about to turn it into something, not sure what yet, but maybe, oh, a quilt?

this year's quilt

I have some Moravian blueprint, too, bought from a shop near my grandmother’s village in the Czech Republic, and hoarded until the right thing came along. I think it might look beautiful with this linen. We’ll see. The cold months are long and fires are warm. It’s been raining for days and I think of Du Fu, preparing for winter:

In Chang’an, who notices the cloth-gowned scholar?
Locked behind his gate and guarding his walls.
The old man doesn’t go out, the weeds grow tall,
Children blithely rush through wind and rain.
The rustling rain hastens the early cold,
And geese with wet wings find high flying hard.
This autumn we’ve had no glimpse of the white sun,
When will the mud and dirt become dry earth?


novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

the murmur of voices in cold air

near stump lake
It’s always interesting to me that new friends can be made in one’s later years and that you find yourself wondering why it took so long to meet these people. In truth, I knew of Robin and Jillian Ridington before I ever met them. They are distinguished anthropologists, the authors of books that form an important part of the canon of North American ethnographic studies. On my desk I keep a copy of Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations , an extraordinary gathering of stories told to them by elders living in the Peace River area, a place where they’ve done fieldwork (and made friends) for decades. I also loved When You Sing It Now, Just Like New: First Nations Poetics, Voices and Representations.  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
We met at the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved with the Festival as an organizer and writer since the first year—2005—and Jillian and Robin have been supporters since that first summer. I thought Robin in particular looked familiar but it wasn’t until later, after I’d taken a break from the Festival for a few years and then returned, that we became friends. One of the highlights of the summer is joining them for dinner on their Nordic Tug—they come to Pender Harbour by boat, often from their haven on Retreat Island, near Galiano Island. Robin grills steaks over the most ingenious barbecue at the stern of the boat (where there’s also a mangle for washing clothing; they spend a lot of time exploring coastal inlets and islands, living aboard for weeks on end). The tug drifts in slow circles on its anchor and we talk, drink red wine, eat until it’s time for Robin to take us back by Zodiac to the dock at Whiskey Slough. The old harbour is there as we talk—the net sheds, small houses with weathered boards, a few boats I remember from the days when we bought our halibut and salmon as the fishermen returned each year—though the new harbour continues to grow those huge houses and fences and yachts capable of taking out docks as they turn.
So friends, with whom we began a conversation years ago and we pick up where it left off whenever we meet. When we were in Victoria for a reading at Munro’s Books in October, we stayed with the Ridingtons for two nights (before heading over to the Surf Motel). We had delicious meals at their table and a wonderful evening of pupus (the Ridingtons spend winters on Maui where they immerse themselves in high Hawaiian music and culture and I love that they use Hawaiian words so naturally at home, including this word for appetizers!) and wine with John Schreiber and Marne St. Claire. I gave them a copy of Euclid’s Orchard as a gift. And this morning Robin returned the gift with this beautiful review: https://sites.google.com/site/plumeofcockatoopress/books-read-2017
Perhaps because her son Brendan is a mathematician, she used the matrix of Euclidean geometry as a way of interpreting the web of cultural and natural influences surrounding their lives.  She even attempts to learn something of mathematics, enough at least, to inform and organize and understand her experiences on their land.  As with everything Kishkan has written, these essays are beautiful, personal, and at the same time universal in their scope.  They are to be read, contemplated and then returned to after some dreamtime assimilation.
Jillian reviewed Winter Wren (and by inference, Patrin) in the summer 2017 issue of Herizons. The review isn’t available to read online but here’s a link to the issue in the event you might want to order it. (I read Herizon at the library and it’s terrific.)
http://www.herizons.ca/node/602  Jillian is intelligent and perceptive; here’s the first paragraph of her review:

BC writer Theresa Kishkan has been writing compelling fiction and poetry for many years. Recently, she has embraced the novella as her chosen form. A novella “retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.1” In other words, it’s a perfect form for women writers who have a story to tell, but lack the time or desire to write an extensive novel — or simply find their material more suited to the shorter form.  For me, the novella a perfect form – long enough to fully develop characters and plot, but short enough to be read in the snatches of time I usually find available. Kishkan’s first novella, Patrin, published by Mother Tongue Press in 2015, tells of a woman’s search to find her Roma foremothers, using clues sewn into a quilt left to her by her grandmother. It is a tale of renewed roots and reclaimed skills. Her latest work, Winter Wren, is the first publication from Fish Gotta Swim Editions, a new company founded by Theresa and her friend Anik See, which will specialize in novellas.  And these two books are little gems – brilliant and reflective.

How do people find one another? How in this world of billions of people do we find the ones that we can share conversations of poetry and dreamers and music, of our families, of the old coast we all love and remember, the politics we deplore, the books we are reading (and writing)? We do, though. When we were in Victoria, Robin played a soundscape recorded by Howard Broomfield in Doig River—children singing, stories shared, dogs barking, the murmur of voices in cold air, by fires so near you could smell the smoke. I’ve dreamed of those voices, preserved on tape and in memory, and it’s what I’ve always wanted. Continuity, true place, true words.

writing on the edge of the world

It’s an exaggeration to say that I live on the edge of the world. Our peninsula juts out into Georgia Strait and west of us, beyond the smaller islands in the Strait, is Vancouver Island. If you drive across it, you arrive at Long Beach and the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet (where we’ll for a few days in late March). That area truly feels like the edge of the world. I went to Long Beach many times as a young woman in the days when people lived in driftwood shelters at the high tide line and you could wander the miles of sand naked if you liked, with only a shell tied to your ankle with a strand of seaweed.

So not the edge of the world here on the land we’ve lived on for 35 years. But some days it feels like that. It’s temperate rain forest, the sea is near, and the view from our dining area is due west so that we see the sunsets year round. Lately we’ve been looking at Venus tangled in the big firs just beyond the window. The year is following its usual route to spring and the red-winged blackbirds are whistling on the marsh we pass on our way to the mailbox. If I wake in the night, I hear barred owls. No coyotes mating yet but we saw a dead one on the side of the road a month ago and I’m wondering if it was one of the pair we’ve had in our woods for years now.

Some days it feels as though we’re very far from the centre of things. I read the news online every morning, from several sources. The world does not feel like a safe place. Not just politically fraught and damaged by human action — its oceans, its atmospheres, its weather, its potential to feed the hungry — but seismically as well. (I wish I didn’t know about this site but I do. This morning, a 4.9 quake southwest of Port Hardy. I wonder if that what we felt, or thought we felt, when we woke.) We do what we can. We keep a supply of dry food and candles. We recycle. Take care of our garden. We send money regularly to organizations supporting civil liberties, free speech, refugee resettlement.

I know that writing can be a political act but mine has never felt that way. I admire writers who are called to that action. I read them. But my own work is quiet. It’s a kind of recording. Not simply my own experiences but places I’ve loved, what they’ve meant as locii of interconnected histories. Relationships. How people are shaped by plant communities and vice versa. How stories are told and held in memory, not just our own but the earth’s. What is held in the layers of stone and sediments. How bird song is part of that. Pollen records. Grass distribution. The architecture of honeycomb.  And how books can be maps to understanding those stories.

In my novella Winter Wren, a potter tells Grace that he wants his pots to be about the place he made them. His clay comes from the Sooke Highlands, his glazes are created by burning native plants — skunk cabbage, scouring rush — and using the ash for the silica it contains. I want that too. I want my books to hold what I love, to remember what I’ve known, and to keep these things safe and true.

Here’s what Grace looked out at each day on the edge of the world. Those rocks have been there for at least 25 millions years, the layers like pages keeping a story in place.


Three Friends of Winter: a novella sale


The Three Friends of Winter refer to the pine, plum, and bamboo. The origin of this term is found as early as “The Record of the Five-Cloud Plum Cottage” from The Clear Mountain Collection of literary writings by Lin Ching-hsi (1241-1310, a Sung dynasty loyalist): “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Years ago, I saw a planting of the Three Friends of Winter in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. And I thought, what a lovely idea — a companion planting of things that thrive in winter! They symbolize steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience. A little like the novella? In honour of the Three Friends of Winter, I’d like to offer my three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for the winter-friendly price of $45. For the three of them. (See my Contact page for my email address.) And I will ship them for free. Think of them as hardy green trees (and doesn’t the scouring rush on Winter Wren look like bamboo?), flourishing in snow and wind, eager to find their way to you.


“Was that a wren?”

Most mornings, a winter wren comes to my study window. It creeps along the cedar trim around the window, searching for insects. It darts in and out of this little birdhouse.


No bird has ever nested in this house but in winter, the wrens (and if you’re a twitcher wondering why I’m calling them winter wrens instead of Pacific wrens, I know they’ve been reclassified but old habits die hard. And the wrens don’t care what we call them. They know who they are…), anyway (to pull this sentence back into some form of grammatical coherence), the wrens take refuge from the cold inside its small confines. Once I was at my desk at twilight and saw 6 of them enter, all of them coming from different directions. When we see them or hear them on our walks, or hunting our woodpile for insects, we usually see just one. If there are two, they aren’t companions but rivals. That’s what the song is about. Or at least that’s my best guess.

The wren moves through my novella named for it (Winter Wren) the way these birds move through our woods. You see them, you don’t; you hear them, then there is silence.

The sun was beginning to set. Tom slumped in his chair, his eyes filled with the sky. He had watched the sun for more than fifty years, watched weather of every temper over seasons too many to count. Was that a wren? Yes, and another there, just by the path. Like mice, they darted and scurried in the bush. One hopped onto the vertebra and there it was, the long song, loud and true. It looked right at him, eyes bright as glass. He wanted to say something to it but nothing came, his voice wasn’t there. Passage of song, the bright eyes. He felt drool on his chin and tried to wipe it with his wrist but his hands were too cold. Grace called out was he alright and with supreme effort, he waved his arm, Yes, yes.

This morning the wren is hunting. The sky is grey, there’s snow on the ground, and winter is truly approaching. 10 days until the Solstice, the time of year the wren comes into its own. Wren ceremonies are rich and various. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the hunting of the wren takes place on the feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day. There are also rituals associated with the wren on the day before the Solstice — December 21 — when a wren is hunted and killed to represent the death of the old King or Sun and the birth (or return) of the New. The wren appears in various west coast Indigenous belief systems as a transformer (the old sun, the new?) and an emblem of great strength.

Today I’ll make the white chocolate fruitcakes we love, rich with dried Montmorency cherries, dried mango, Calimyrna figs, and hazelnuts, and I’ll watch for wrens. We have a beautiful piece of glass, made by our friend June Malaka, hanging in our big south-facing window, and the world through it swirls and tilts. Anything could happen. Anything might.



the firewood gate

I went out to try to photograph the morning sky, pink suffusing the eastern and southern treelines, and everything so rich and autumnal. But the colour wouldn’t show up. But while I was outside, I could smell newly-split fir. (John spent the last few days splitting and stacking two cords of wood.)

firewood gate.JPG

Our woodshed was built with bits and pieces of cedar posts and beams more than 30 years ago. When you live where we live, you burn a lot of firewood and the woodshed was an essential structure. There’s a magnificent wisteria climbing up the right post, the one you don’t see, its trunk as thick as a good-sized tree.

The last week has been strangely stressful. A medical adventure for me, world events filling the airwaves — or at the radio airwaves; the ones outside are loud with wind and birds — and (maybe as a result of the medical issue) Time’s Winged Chariot whirring dangerously near. But the firewood is somehow comforting — its sweet smell, the quick winter wren that is busy investigating its new geometries for insects. So settle in, I tell myself, and remember where you are, who you are. Long conversations with my children have been a solace. News of Halloween: granddaughter dressed up as a garbage-truck driver (her current heroes, the guys who wave to her from the alley as they pick up the weekly garbage and recycling), clutching her plastic garbage truck as proof of her dedication; one grandson a pirate; the other (the youngest) a monster.

I think of Du Fu, that poet-sage of the Tang dynasty, who wrote of political corruption and the passing of time, and whose home had a firewood gate; he was nothing if not grounded in the particulars of home and hearth, all the while lamenting the injustices of the larger world. Time to do as he did, meditate on Autumn and its touchstones: the smoke and cold water, the song of a tiny bird among the logs, and the sound of the mountain.

I’ve heard them say that Chang’an seems like in a game of chess,
A hundred years of world events have caused unbearable pain.
The palaces of the noblemen all have their new masters,
Civil and military dress and caps are not like those before.
Straight north over mountain passes, gongs and drums ring out,
Conquering the west, carts and horses, feather-hurried dispatches.
The fish and dragons are still and silent, the autumn river cold,
A peaceful life in my homeland always in my thoughts.

(Autumn Meditation 4)