Thursday 22 December 2016


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

Boardwalk on the Westcoast trail

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

Okanagan hills

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.

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. 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.