Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Coyote jubilation


Photo by Gerald Romanchuk
Last night I was out in my yard digging in the garden around dusk when suddenly from the east, sounding very close, a band of coyotes sent up a wild howling, yipping, barking, crescendoing and decrescendoing. It went on for several minutes. My neighbour came out on her step to listen. "Crazy," she said. "They sound so close."
It was thrilling, a bit scary, carrying some primal, irrational sense of threat. When I heard the coyotes' frenzied voices, something rang in me, as it always does when I hear them, or see them loping down the road. The cry of jubilation, victory. Then I wondered if that was right. Maybe it was mourning. Wild grief, not jubilation at all. I have no way of knowing which it was. Probably neither.

How many times in my life have I misinterpreted what I've heard? One recent instance brought home to me how wrong I can be in my perceptions. I was camping at a lake I love, a place I'm comfortable going alone. It was a weekday morning; the campground was quiet. I was drinking my tea, listening to the wind that sometimes moves through the tops of the trees but doesn't touch the lower branches. A trailer pulled into the campsite next to me. We're separated by trees and a pretty good distance, but I'm not the most gregarious camper. I'm not quite on the level on Sartre with his "hell is other people," but I'm close. The way that my mind becomes hijacked by others' impressions, the stress of that processing, is the reason that I go camping alone in the first place. So I always have mixed feelings when others arrive.

After a while I heard a woman's voice come through the trees from their campsite. She carried on an unbroken stream of chatter. Once in a while I heard another voice interrupt. But then she went on. I tried to ignore it. Most people are more sociable than me, I realize. Clearly, she had something to get off her chest. But it started to irritate me. I went down to the lake. When I came back a couple of hours later, I was surprised to hear her still droning on and on. I wondered what she could have so much to talk about. I wondered why she didn't shut up for awhile and let me and the people around her enjoy the peace and quiet.

This went on all day long -- after I went kayaking and stood at the picnic table making my supper; as I built my campfire for the evening. Then the wind changed. I began to hear her voice much more clearly, and another voice, a young girl. I heard the woman say, "Maybe that's enough for today. I can read more tomorrow. We'll be able to start on the other book. Did you bring it?" And I realized that what I'd been irritated by all day long was the sound of a woman reading to her granddaughter.

I doubt I'm the only one who has spent years, literally years, rehashing things that have incredible power over me, the power to make me blush, or the power to make my vision blur, my heart thunder in shame. Shame seems to be one of my most stubborn emotions. But I'm beginning to realize, at the age of fifty-six, that it's just possible that these things I've perceived in certain ways are wrong, that I got them wrong at the time and that I've continued to feed the flames of my wrong perceptions every time I call up the memories. My perceptions are not reality. That's what I'm learning.

The Urban Coyote Project says that coyotes have more than eleven vocalizations whose meanings are complex. One coyote can sound like many more, because of the way they change the pitch. Normally, I don't spend a lot of time wondering what the sound means. I appreciate the mystery. I would like to be able to bring that spirit to my more mundane experiences, too.

This is a beautiful short recording of coyote voices by Rocky Raybell on the Colville Indian Reservation, in Washington State. He calls it Coyote Symphony.





Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Road Past Libau part II

Mary, my grandma, Neil and me
with pump and bunkhouse in background, early 70s.
When we were near the turn that my sister, Mary, and I thought was the road to our old farm, I phoned my brother Neil on my cell phone and asked him to guide us. His memory for the navigational details was better than mine or Mary's. That sounds like it, he said. Turn left. So I'm almost sure we'd found the right place. The road seemed exactly true to my memory; I remembered how when we walked in, there was a sense of mystery about what lay beyond the bend.

But when we drove onto the property where our house and barn and outbuildings had been, everything seemed out of place. Some things were familiar: the thick woods, the soft powdery soil, even the sky, a scrubbed clean blue. But it was as if the rest of it had been bulldozed away. How many years had it been? Forty, we realized with shock. How much could change in forty years? How much could we have remembered wrong?

The road at the curve.
Mary and I remember painting the bunkhouse one weekend. We leaned the ladder up on one side of the bunkhouse and climbed onto the roof to paint the trim. It was morning, coolish. By noon the sun was high, and the side of the roof with the ladder was too hot to walk on. The other side was too far down to jump. We were stranded up there.

We looked for that bunkhouse. There were buildings like it, but none had the attic trapdoor in exactly the same place, the door we'd unhooked so that we could swing down off the roof and lower ourselves to the ground.

You begin to wonder if it's the actual place that's wrong, or the memory of it. How many times have I told an old familiar family story, only to have one of my sisters, or my brother, say, "That wasn't you, that was me." The place now, the farm, the outbuildings and the way it felt at night when the quiet was so deep my own heart beating was the loudest thing in my ears, have taken on new shapes in my memory, as they've become the setting for my new novel, The Burned House (originally Sing a Worried Song).

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Coffee Italian style

Coffee machine in a gas station on the way to Marco Polo airport
Although I'm not normally a coffee drinker, I've been longing for the caffe macchiato I had in Italy. I recently read an article about why we should start drinking coffee like Italians do. Instead of filling 16 or 20 ounce paper cups, carting them out to our cars or bus stops or shopping malls or desks and sucking on them mindlessly for half an hour, the article suggests North Americans try drinking coffee Italian-style: from a small white ceramic cup, standing up at a counter and downed in a few quick sips. While at first glance, it might seem like the ritual of this quick hit of coffee is a bit like swallowing a couple of aspirin, I've come to believe that it actually results in much more of a break than the North American style Starbucks march (or the Canadian Tim Hortons drive-through routine.)

When I was drinking coffee in Italy, I stood at a usually crowded counter with my tiny, perfectly brewed caffe macchiato (which I learned means "stained coffee," which is why in Italy I was told to make sure I said caffe first, not just "macchiato") and I drank coffee. I didn't check my email or negotiate traffic, walk down the street or teach a class, or anything else, really, except maybe to exchange a few words with the person I was standing with. Drinking the creamy, smooth, laced with slight bitterness coffee gave me this precious inward moment. Then I moved on. The day went on. But during my brief time in Italy, I looked forward to having that moment each afternoon.

When we were leaving Italy, our hosts stopped at a gas station on the way to the airport to get a coffee. Used to gas station coffee in North America, a watery brown and tasteless liquid warmed in a plastic carafe and dispensed into a styrofoam cup, then stirred with a plastic stick, I was surprised to see the gleaming espresso machine behind the counter, kept running by beleaguered baristas in uniforms who shoved the little ceramic cups across the counter to people in a hurry, like in gas stations everywhere. They did have disposal cups in this gas station. Because we were on the way to the airport, I took my caffe macchiato to go.

I realized my mistake immediately. First of all, I was embarrassed by how pointless and wasteful it was to take a paper cup to drink a coffee that would be gone in about three sips. But also, the moment I'd had standing and savouring my little coffee was missing.

From https://oliveonblonde.wordpress.com/tag/plastic/
Somehow the waste of the paper cup and the waste of the experience are linked in my mind. Why are we North Americans so good at taking a good thing and "improving" it to the point of ruining it? Why do we take a three or four ounce cup and turn it into twenty? And why do we always seem to lead the way in wastefulness? In Italy, I never saw the overflowing garbage bins outside of cafes that are such a common daily sight in communities across Canada and the US. An event like the Festivaletteratura that I was part of in Mantua didn't result, as it would in Canada, in streams of barely used, discarded paper and plastic food containers trailing down the sidewalks.

You might think that borrowing this Italian idea of coffee drinking, and at the same time eliminating mountains of waste, would be a no-brainer. Sadly, instead, there's a new ban on bans in Michigan, prohibiting local governments from banning or regulating the use of plastic containers.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Understory

Skagit River Trail, Manning Park, BC
Yesterday, I drove up the Green Lake Road to go cross-country skiing. I was also looking for cedar boughs, which smell like nothing else, and which have a special meaning for my husband, David, and me. When we lived in the Fraser Valley, we were surrounded by a lush forest of cedars. Their fronds look like feathers, and when it rained, we'd step outside and be enshrouded with their rich, tangy fragrance. We also took part in sweat lodge ceremonies where cedar was used. So the scent alone is healing to me.

The cedar I see growing in a damp area near the creek here is probably Western redcedar, which grows in the interior. As I drove along Green Lake Road, I noticed spruce and fir and the beautiful orangey-barked Ponderosa pine that scents the woods in this part of the Okanagan.

What's so important about naming these trees? When Shelter came out, a few people commented on Maggie's obsession with naming plants. I obviously share that obsession. I want to be able to tell the difference between a spruce and a fir.

Okanagan pines

Just like I learn the names of people, I learn the names of trees so that they're familiar to me. I recognize their faces: the deep-fissured bark of the Douglas fir and the stringy bark of the cedar.

I like the word understory. I know it means the layers of growth in a forest, but I like the idea of it being a story in the sense of a narrative. If I know the names of the trees and other plants, I understand something about the story of the forest I'm in. The ability to read a little of that story seems important to me.

In the pine forests around here I can find oregon grape, wild roses, saskatoon berries, kinnikinnick, and yellow balsam root in the spring. In the coastal cedar forests, I'll find huckleberries, salmonberries, ferns, devil's club.  I can eat the berries and avoid the devil's club, though if I knew devil's club better, I'd appreciate its many uses, too.

  

Saturday, 29 October 2016

West Coast trail: one step in front of the other

When I wake up in the middle of night and can't get back to sleep, I lie listening to the owls calling from the tall pines down the street from our house. I read that the call of the great-horned owl has been "translated" in our language to "Are you still up? Me too." That middle of the night, nameless anxiety that I feel is both echoed and soothed by their voices, resonating into the darkness.

I think it's not uncommon for regrets to come thundering in on us in the dead of the night, when no one is there to distract from the memories. This is partly the subject of the novel I'm working on, called The Burned House. My regrets, I believe, are relatively minor in the scheme of things, but they loom large at the witching hour of 4 a.m. Lately I have distracted myself with a kind of meditation that I discovered out on the West Coast trail, on the westernmost edge of Canada, where the Pacific Ocean crashes into shore on the wrecks of ships long abandoned to the sand and wind.

I carried a thirty pound pack, nearly a third of my weight but as light as I could make it without going hungry or cold. I had practiced hiking with this pack, but only loaded to twenty pounds, and I worried, when we stepped onto the trail, and within fifty feet encountered two sets of ladders with moss-covered rungs leading pretty much vertically up a rock face. I worried about whether I'd be able to make it, or if I'd have to suffer the ignominy of being rescued by helicopter and air-lifted off the trail. Or worse, of course.

We had been warned, frequently, by websites, handbooks, park guides, and bus drivers, that mishaps on the trail were frequent, up 300% this year for some reason. I was hiking with my husband and my sister and we were all fit hikers, but we had mostly done canoe camping. We were not used to carrying so much weight on our backs.

The West Coast trail is incredibly beautiful. traversing old growth forests with huge ferns, firs, cedars, and waterfalls. Just breathing the air feels healing. Sunlight streamed through the trees, and landed on our faces and for a time, the other world, the one where we have jobs and buy dish soap and get our oil changed, was gone. It was one careful step in front of the other. Then we were hungry and shrugged off our packs and ate the things we'd carefully packed -- almonds and licorice and rice cakes. Then coffee. Can anything be as healing as drinking a cup of hot coffee sitting on smooth grey driftwood three feet in diameter at the edge of the Pacific Ocean with forests older than human memory at our backs?

At night when I can't sleep, I come back to that place, the certainty of its constant change, the thunder of surf on sand, the rich odour of soil and trees, decay and renewal. I feel the weight of the pack, but nothing else, as I put one foot in front of the other, covering the miles.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Look up

I'm not a person with a grudge against technology, but I've been thinking how social media, in my case, specifically Facebook, has caused my experiences to have this odd third person feeling. I already tended that way, since I'm a writer and I'm constantly processing and shaping my experiences into stories. Now the phenomenon is even worse. I stand outside myself, sometimes at my most private moments, watching. I'm present, but I'm also conscious of the moment as precious and worthy of sharing.

Okanagan hills

The other day I was in the scrub pines on a dry hillside up a backroad near here. I was looking for some pine poles to build a gate (to keep the deer out of my garden). I had my head down, scouting the ground. I'd pick up a length of pine and test its strength by cracking it over a rock. Some beautiful twisted lengths flew to pieces, rotten already. So I kept looking. They had to be longer than 6 feet and preferably with a lovely bend or twist. The relentless sun and wind on that east side of the valley makes curved sculptures of the pine boughs. I was absorbed in that, eyes on the ground, watching my feet, stepping over little piles of scoured clean deer bones (I think) and I turned to see where I'd left the poles I'd found so far.

It was almost by accident that I looked up and the view slammed into my field of vision. An incredible sweeping 180 degree panorama of mountain after mountain after mountain in shades from deep navy to sky blue to white where the snow was caught, and then the sky as many shades of blue above that. It took my breath away. It made me smile. I had that moment all to myself -- awe, gratitude. I took a few steps back at my task, then I stopped and fished my phone out of my pocket.

Already I was processing it. The moment had passed. I couldn't quite find the same view in my phone camera frame as what I'd seen when I first looked up. Even now as I'm writing this I'm tempted to Google what I'm grappling with. I'm trying to think of the search terms I'd use to see if someone else has already thought this out, and better than I could. Then I think, wait, I'm allowed to have this insight and think it is original. I'm allowed to ponder it slowly and deeply myself, exploring my own messy questions and revelations instead of boarding that wearying Google train lurching from idea to idea to idea until I've lost the curiosity that made me wonder in the first place.

To leave the phone behind is the obvious solution. But that would mean a consciousness about the potential for these random moments of beauty that seems contradictory, un-zen. I was just out to find some sticks. I told David I'd be back in half an hour. I brought my phone along partly for safety. I did mention the picked-clean bones?

I'm learning to meditate. I'm an absolute beginner and there is so much I can't get my head around. But I think I have an inkling about what it means to be present, attentive to what is. The problem is in the hyper-consciousness of experience, processing it, a word I associate with processed meats -- same de-naturing. Once I begin to process it, break it down, add to it, I'm no longer just there, experiencing the richness and complexity. I'm assessing and judging. And this is a loss.

"One seeks and seeks but cannot find. One then gives up and the answer comes by itself." Alan Watts.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The road past Libau Part I


This summer, while researching details of the setting for Sing a Worried Song, my novel-still-yes-still-in-progress, I went to rural Manitoba looking for a farm where I'd spent many peaceful weekends in the 1970s. My family owned the farm, bought it for next to nothing: 80 acres, (half a quarter section) of sandy land riddled with rocks over most of it, except the part that was swamp. The thing is, over the years we'd heard that the house, barn and outbuildings had been razed. On several occasions, on the way to somewhere else, I'd looked for it, but never been able to locate it.

Us, in the early 1970s.
This year I took a few days to visit my sister Mary at her cottage, which is about an hour's drive past where the farm was located. We were determined to find the site of the old farm. She had looked for it too, now and then over the years. It's strange to lose a place, especially one you've loved.

My mother used to drive us out there and drop us off to spend the weekend, or sometimes a whole week, while she went back to the city to work (Winnipeg is about an hour away). It was the early 70s. I remember walking barefoot the five miles to town, the fine sand of the road as soft as baby powder between our toes. When we reached the highway, we had to put our runners back on so we wouldn't burn our feet on the tarmac. What did we buy at the store? Popsicles, red licorice twists, comic books. We didn't need anything; we only walked to say we'd done it, walked ten miles in a day. At night, we heard coyotes calling, and sometimes saw their eyes blinking like fireflies from the long grass around the farmyard. The depth of the darkness, the loneliness, and the riot of stars overhead on clear nights, was liberating.  I've sought that place or something like it ever since, and sometimes found it and the exhilaration that comes with being unjudged, unmeasured, and minuscule in the scheme of things.