Monday, December 29, 2014

Against clarity (poem in praise of dirty windows)

Some bottles are not about the message, but a quality of light. 

Late afternoon :: December :: a dusty window :: a small dark room :: the pleasures of the camera's lens. 

On such a day, glass isn't what you see through, so much as what you see with: what throws the light back into your eyes.  

Be grateful then for dirty windows, for golden light, for winter :: that horizon of the present through which we cannot see.


Why write in praise of dirty windows? Because we are approaching the end of the year; consequently, from every media source, we are subjected to an unbearable stream of reviews, resolutions and prognostications.  Unlike reviews designed to help you learn from your mistakes, or real efforts to imagine another morrow, these lists of happenings and events to come are disingenuous, and anything but illuminating. They simply take up space, gagging the airwaves. Here's what I would prefer in these dark days: here and there, a spot of real light, something surprisingly lovely, one small thing, then another: never another list.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

How beautiful the half-obscured world (video)

Simple pleasures: to watch how the fog shifts and moves, the light rises and falls. I make a minestrone soup, do the laundry, make a pot of tea--with every gesture relishing the quiet, the calm air, the mirrored surface of the sea. A loon floats in the cove at the front of the house and dives in the shallows. Lines of current zigzag outward, carrying the tide out past the islands. Blue clouds, bluer hills--how beautiful the half-obscured world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lost objects

Suppose, instead of finding yourself, you were to take as a goal to lose yourself, to wander, to immerse yourself, to get lost? 

Losing things is easy; really getting lost in a familiar space, if you are not already, can be harder than it seems. Let me be clear: I don't mean you should set out to lose your place in the world--that's painfully, mournfully easy.  All it takes is a slip in memory, an argument, a falling out of love, death. Although perhaps the line between these two sorts of loss isn't as stark as I would wish.

Here now, I've barely gotten started, and already I'm tangled up. Let me begin again, and unravel my theme as if we were going on a walk and the path was opening at our feet.

Long ago, I had a friend with whom I played this game: we set out, on foot or in her car, and wandered aimlessly, without a map. The point was to get lost if we could, to baffle ourselves, to have a hard time making out way back home to our apartments, our respective partners, our schoolwork.

We took lostness as a sort of holiday, or tried to. But getting truly lost in a small city you know well, bounded on one side by the water, with familiar hills rising in the distance--this is not so simple. Not to know the name of the road you traveled on, or where it led was one thing, but was that really being lost? Not to be able to pick your way back, to be stumped or puzzled, panicked even--that was something we never really experienced on our little voyages.  Not then anyway. 

Of course, we had each other and we had time--or rather, we took it, along with a longing for adventure in weeks seamed with obligations and deadlines. Every time we set out, we circled back, unwittingly, and were surprised to find ourselves on familiar streets.

Once we set out just after a rainstorm. The gutters were charged with water, each street a roaring stream. It was summer; the leaves drained water on our heads. Just before dusk we came across a trunk set out along the curb. We opened it. Inside: notebook and a small woman's garments. Handwriting in Chinese.

We kept the trunk. My friend's husband, who was ethical and meticulous in this way, tried to find the owner, but whoever had packed this trunk really was lost--to us anyway. After awhile, we scattered the trunk's contents.  I do not know what happened to the notebooks, but I took and sometimes wore one of the garments, a long high-collared sleeveless red silk brocaded vest; it buttoned over my chest and fell all the way to my feet. 

I left it later at a girlfriend's house in New York. We'd gotten into a bitter fight and I fled for Canada with most of my stuff, leaving just the cape folded on the shelf, as if I were a snake, shucking a past skin, a past life.  Who knows, perhaps that's how the red vest came to me. It was, surely, an immigrant object.

Now, more than twenty years later, I have no idea where it is, or who has it, or where it's traveled, if anywhere. Perhaps it's in a landfill, its silk threads rotting, the red dye leaching, slowly entering the earth and groundwater. 

Or perhaps someone else wears it, and dances in the night, hair wild, vest trailing behind her, as I did. My friend with whom I tried to get lost? I do not know where she is either.

The red silk window-covering was hung by Gary Markle.
Windows were photographed in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in December 2014.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Post in praise of ice (did I just say that?) or an interval of time

Ice forms among the bulrushes (West Quoddy, NS)

I am forever startled by how quickly night falls as we approach December.  We are in full sunlight and then suddenly we are in darkness; the icy surface of the pond and the sea hold the light a little longer, but then they too must give it up. First the land goes dark, and then the islands; finally the water joins them, an inky pool, noisesome in the darkness.

I sit by the fire with the cat. She has taken up her odalisque pose on the bench beside me, both of us craving the warmth, letting it radiate into our bones. A high of zero degrees today; when Marike and I stepped into the light for a walk, it felt as if the north wind was squeezing my face, pinching my cheeks, thumping my forehead. It took several minutes to get used to it, to stop feeling as if I ought to turn around and huddle indoors. Underfoot, the crackle and shatter of puddles become brittle ice--all of the water of the last days' soakings transformed into glittering patterns in the ditches.

We finally remembered to shut the windows in the bedroom and the bath--I had to climb on the garage roof and then the oil tank and push while Marike ground the windows inward and locked them down; they are secured now for the winter. We dumped three buckets of ashes over the wall, and hung out and then brought in an icy load of laundry. In the interim, we walked around the headland, down to the water, then back again.

Today the chickadees were puffed up and greedy for seeds--one bird, the smallest one, sat repeatedly in my palm and crammed as many sunflower seeds as it could into its beak, perhaps four or five, before flying away to cache them in the trees. We startled a grouse or two, and one or two rabbits, their fawn colouring giving way to snow now--just this week white patches have begun to spread across their noses and up the backs of their legs.

Once I was out in the sun, despite the cold, I didn't want to come in. It was high tide when we set out, the beach underwater, so we picked our way along mossy deer paths in the forest to get from one cove to the next. Once in the lee of the wind, we stopped to sit with the sun on our faces, eyes closed, listening to the suck and drift of the water, to the almost silent fanning of the weeds at our feet.

Just here, like this, I said to Marike, and you can imagine that life on earth is truly good.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Running out into the rain: Remembering Bill Readings (1960-1994)

It has been twenty years since my friend Bill Readings died in an iced-up airplane that plummeted to earth in an Indiana soybean field. Twenty years since a phone call that Halloween night cancelled dinner plans, and turned our Montreal party into mourning. Twenty years since the world changed.

Twenty years is a lifetime, and no time at all. Enormous sorrow, but also every subsequent gift seems to flow from that catastrophic event; the finality of it has figured, one way or another in most of the major moves of my adult life, from the onset of an acute depression, to quitting my job, and an eventual recovery by and on the sea. I can trace back to that accident the fact that I've built an unusual but deeply rooted and sustaining family life, here, at the edge of my adopted country. I do not know if I would be a storyteller now, one who makes things with others, if that event had not interrupted the narrowing focus of my academic life and career, and derailed them. Now my life is filled with teaching, sure, but also with shared days and nights, fresh air, clouds or stars, frogs and owls, cats, dogs, poems, photographs, sailboats, sketches, videos, voyages, berry crisps, time to love, time to breathe, and walks with chickadees, who flutter by to feed from our hands.

Bill, I do not know if I would have had the courage to make those changes without the fact of your death before me, the stupidity of it, in a plane that had already been designated a "grave," on the return leg of an international academic commute, when what is routine turns suddenly deadly, and no fragment of you is ever recovered. How peculiar still to be thus suspended: we prepare for a meal to which you never arrive.

At first we waited. We thought you'd change your mind, come back from the dead. We thought we'd sit in your kitchen again while you pulled espressos and steamed milk from that machine that made you so proud, a salvaged restaurant-grade cappuccino machine you'd had plumbed in beside your kitchen sink. We thought we'd gather around your big glass table again, and drink and argue and eat exquisite meals (risotto with black truffles, seared squid, perfect greens), listen to tango, talk about politics and soccer, you with your slow deliberate French--your third or fourth language--carving enough room for all of us, no matter what or how we spoke. We thought we'd hear your reliable advice again, your homespun scholarly wisdom: the best way to pull down a grant, plan a trip, bend back the pages of a book so that it looked as if you'd read it.  You were expert at the rhetorics of the university, but you never let them master your zest for living. Until you died.

I remember one late meal on a cool fall night. Your house was full of visiting artists and scholars. One from Japan, two from Brazil, a friend from Switzerland, where you'd once taught, a scattering of friends from Montreal. I'd helped you cook dinner. You were telling stories about the first time you'd come to North America, on an open ticket that let you fly around the world. For a moment you were sober: I've taken so many flights in my life, you said, that sometimes I wonder if I've flown my number.

We all shouted you down: no, don't be silly! You're joking, right?

Two weeks later you were dead. And your comment haunted all of us who were there.

Would you have gone anyway if you had known how it would end? I know you hadn't planned to die; you'd come to see me just before you left. I'm sorry I can't stay longer, you'd said, but I'll be back next week. You were worried about your recent weight gain; we'd made a date to repot some houseplants, and to talk about something serious,  but what that was I no longer remember. How to survive the pressures of a long-distance relationship? Perhaps. Both of us had partners in the US and insanely large phone bills; we knew and shared those vicissitudes, the miscommunications and the loneliness of long-distance loves.

I remember one of the last nights I saw you. As I prepared to go and you hugged me goodbye, you clung to me, tearing, as if I were a life raft.

But that's what you had been--and continue to be in some respects--for me: the one who saved me from drowning, even as the storm of year death nearly sank me. Surviving that and the storms that have followed it have taught me what I know about strength and weakness, sadness and joy, living while and as you can.

Sometimes I still think I see you, tall form striding down a damp autumn street in your lemon yellow raincoat. You emerge from the crowd then slip back into it: ghost, old friend, guardian angel. Choose how you want to live, I hear you say; don't simply withstand. Reach out if you're unhappy; do something. Raincoats are so you'll run out into the rain.

I still miss you Bill; I always will. But now I'm putting on my coat and going out into the rain.

The first two pictures are copies of photos taken in 1994--of Bill's last birthday party, on a ski holiday with his wife, Diane Elam, and friends Annie and Carolyn, as well as me and my partner then, Kristin Bergen.

The last photo is from a collage of images of an early snowstorm in La Fontaine Park, which was near my house in Montreal.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Against usefulness

for J, after a conference in which she was discouraged from teaching "useless knowledge"

If your useful abolishes poetry, I call for the end of utility.

How long can we live without dreaming?

Could you think if you couldn't drift?
What about a patch of colour on winter's blankest day?
Tell me you don't need to anticipate spring:
how long would you last without hope?

Is there anything in your house but white walls? 
Does your coat have a check, a fanciful button, a bit of flair
or style?
And what about your shoes?
Off with anything not your most stringent need: 
sackcloth, rubber boots, the plainest of hats.

Do you like to look from your window or follow the arc of a bird in flight?
Drop your eyes now; stare at the square of your desk:
this is your world entire. 
All else is uselessness.

Take the salt from your table.
Seek no new flavours, palate teasers, surprises, adventures. 
Who needs food or fetes or dinner meetings? Focus on the task. 
As for the rest? Try Ensure.

Now empty your shelves,
your music library.
Strip the paintings from your walls.
Give away your television, your rings and baubles, your photographs,
the bottle of porto at the back of the cupboard,
your mother's favourite coffee cup, 
every extra jacket.
Leather? Utterly impractical. Toss that too.

Strive for flatness in all that you do.

No cappuccino; no sweet thing in the morning or after a meal:
these are clearly useless,
ornamental, mere

If necessity is your rule, go ahead, I dare you:
live by it!

Forget singing. Turn your radio
off. The shower is for cleaning,
not dreaming. 
Scrub, don't showboat.

Keep each gesture to strict economy.
Destroy your gardens. 
Eat no cake.
The wine at dinner, your crystal decanter, who needs it?
Paint your car grey.
Pitch anything that resembles colour or pleasure or play.
Renounce eloquence and all of her sisters,
rhetoric, rhythm, persuasion, storytelling:
rhizomes rooted in poetry, these tropes are not for you to use.

Bureaucratic rationality carries us only so far--
you who purge and pleat betray other obsessions
(what is the sound of a heart past broken?)

Foolishness plots to leach the world of its lovely, to exile
exuberance, omit intensity, destroy

Sure, there's use in such reductiveness
--use, your name is murder--
but nowhere, life.

Usefulness, step aside:
my currency is fancy, and all
profit is in it.


I took the photos in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia, in the fall several years ago. The flowers were from our garden; I cut them before a hurricane blew them down.

The quotation in italics is from Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).

Friday, October 24, 2014

Security. Lockdown.

If it rains enough you forget how it was before the rain.

You think it will never not rain.

It rains all day Wednesday, and then all night, the wind stacking waves, their tops curling, breaking white, throwing spray over every reef.  

Hard in this wind to hold the car door open: it slams on her cheek, leaves a cut, a blossoming bruise. The steps at school are slippery; the heel of my shoe keeps falling off. I press the nails back in place, but what I really need is glue.

What's it like out there? someone asks as I blow in on Thursday just before 11, rain in my hair.

Wet, I say, shaking my head. Windy. Not too cold.

No, I mean, she says, were the police out there? Someone said the square was full of police. 

I didn't see that. 

She tells me a story. Earlier this morning, just three blocks away, a man was spotted on the street carrying a gun wrapped in a blanket. The police have been searching for him. Then word came that they had caught him, right here, next door. But some people are claiming there were two people with guns, and the one they've caught isn't the one who was walking down the street earlier.

Here we go, we say, rolling our eyes. After the shootings on Parliament Hill yesterday, the whole country's gone crazy. Everyone turning paranoid. Turning American. One mentally ill too often homeless Libyan-Canadian kills a soldier, rushes Parliament with a long gun, and is killed, and all anyone wants to talk about is terrorism. International threats. Security. No one wants to discuss domestic problems, gun control, poverty, racism, or mental illness. These deaths are a warrant for war, not a mental health strategy.

We imagine what implement the guy sighted in Halifax might have been carrying: a pool cue, a roll of sketches, a bassoon.  Or perhaps he was a reenactor, headed for the latest costume drama on Citidel Hill, and stupid enough to carry his cardboard rifle on the street. Out of the rain, under a blanket.

I head to my office; a day full of meetings unspools.

Government offices are on lockdown. So are the banks. A nearby high school. No one may enter, even later, even long afterwards, after a young man who had run from a city bus and left behind his weapons was arrested and taken into custody.

In Halifax, no official says anything about terrorism. Nor do they mention mental illness. Instead, the doors remain locked, public offices closed to citizens, a gesture that speaks volumes. Today we are dangerous; today in our raincoats we might be a threat; today we cannot enter the archives to look at some photographs hanging there. Openness is risky.

Didn't you hear, another friend quips, today is International Long Gun Holiday? And then he apologizes: I'm sorry; that was in bad taste.

We drive home through the rain and the falling leaves. Once home, we remember to lock the doors. 

As if what is out there is sure to be more harmful than what lies within.


On the shootings in Ottawa:

On gunmen in Halifax:

Pictures were taken in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on 23 October 2014.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fruit Machine (gonna make you sweat!)

queen  circus  gay bell 
whole blind bull camp 
coo cruise drag dike 
fish flute fruit mother 
punk queer rim sew 
swing trade velvet wolf 
blackmail prowl bar 
house club restaurant 
tea room top men

breast  farm hammer 
blonde stiff radiator 
erect politician stroke 
cigar child newspaper 
fight asphalt

Another found poem. This one comes from an infamous chapter in Canadian history--the effort on the part of the RCMP, mandated by the federal government and the military, to build a machine to identify queer people. This top-secret high security undertaking, the "Fruit Machine" project, gets going in the 1950s and 60s, when "national security" is evidently threatened by that scurilous curious hybrid, the "commie pinko fag" and all of his or her friends.  The idea was to show gay and straight pornography to suspected gay people strapped in barber's chairs (only a couple of rhetorical steps away from the electric chair here), and to use a device to measure the dilation of their pupils as they looked at the gay pornography. The idea was that the more the pupils dilated, the greater the involuntarily revealed interest. (If this story makes you think of some infamous scenes from Clockwork Orange, you're on the right track.) A second phase of development was supposed to measure sweat responses to stimuli, but results from the first phase were so unsatisfactory (unreliable) that the entire project was ultimately abandoned. Apparently finding willing test subjects was also profoundly difficult. The RCMP resorted to shadowing gay and lesbian clubs, secretly photographing patrons, and pressuring subjects they picked up to reveal the identities of various suspected queers. Many people refused to become informants, but over the course of this period, data was collected on some 9000 Canadian citizens, and hundreds of queer people, particularly in the military and the civil service, lost their jobs.

The words in the poem come from word associations used in initial "fruit machine" tests. Words in the first stanza are clearly supposed to evoke associations with the gay life; words in the second stanza are designed to suggest "strong," "upright," "straight" ("manly?") associations and virtues. ("Wanna fight?")

The text of the poem is drawn from Gary Kinsman & Patrizia Gentile's important book The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

Also worth looking at: Gary Kinsman, Dieter K. Buse and Mercedes Steedman, eds. Whose National Security? Toronto: Between the Lines, 2000. Note, the first time I called up and perused this book on google books, the framing language (when the book was published, where one might buy it, etc.) was all in Hebrew. It took three tries and several specific searches for the book title to pull down a google book with English framing. What does this mean? Your guess is surely as good as mine.  

For a brief video introduction to the "Fruit Machine," see the following clip from the CBC digital archives:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Today I will different

After a summer on the boat away from my desk and the internet, save speedy incursions into my email boxes from laundromats equipped with wifi, I've stockpiled quite a bit of work. I thought of back-dating and posting it all, but the organizational effort involved in that exercise of documentary fiction--"as if" I really were here, posting chronologically, all summer--made me miserable and hopeless. I felt as if I'd never be caught up. Add to that, the commencement of a new teaching semester, and I began to feel overwhelmed. Until some part of me--the better part of me--rebelled. Why begin a new term in arrears? Why not simply begin today, and see what happens? Sudden relief, as if I could breathe again.

Today's poem then, another sonnet (something about this form is haunting me, and bit by bit, creating its own shape), thematically apt.

You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will      efficient      today
tasks completed     today    organized   today
desk in order.
Today I will   different.
Do today as if some one other
un-waylaid by wind or whim or
        : this is the song you sing when you're dancing with a ghost
when samba flings your solar plexus when
deepstep come shining across
your painted sill  waves at your feet suck
sand to sea  beckon you to swim.


Italicized lines quote Alice Notley (the song you sing) from Benediction (2000)--the version found in her Grave of Light: New and Selected Poetry and C.D. Wright (deepstep come shining), from, of course, her Deepstep Come Shining (1998).

The photo, of old, new and blasted trees rooted in the same spot, was taken in a provincial park on Keats Island in Howe Sound, BC.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Pulmonia (Shadows of Mazatlan)

Mazatlan is a coastal city on the Mexican mainland. In the afternoon, where they aren't stopped by high rises or cancelled by ever expanding parking lots and pavement, sea breezes cool the city. At least in the winter.  If it gets too hot, however, you can always hail one of the city's famous "pulmonias," "pneumonia cars," so called because they are doorless and windowless converted, canopied VW bugs. Most are tricked out with superb sound systems and all sorts of detailing on the dash and steering wheel. You can bomb through town, the wind in your hair, listening to the whatever music most pleases your driver, swerving around corners, hanging on so that you (and your luggage) aren't tossed from the side.

Here we drive along a mural painted by school children, past a tortilla factory and through several neighbourhoods enroute to the Tufesa bus station. Our driver, Mario, is a return economic exile from the US. He worked for many years in California, but now all of the jobs have dried up, so he's back, cobbling together a living as he can, like everyone else clambering into the middle class in Mexico. It's a heroic but not hopeless effort, unhelped by US and Canadian "security" measures, which figure Mexico and Mexicans as unreliable and dangerous.

But let's mention this: assault rifles are not legally bought and sold in Mexico, and the personal ownership and use of firearms is more highly regulated and more generally frowned upon than it is just north of the Rio Grande. Indeed, many Mexicans complain that lax US gun regulation has led to a flood of weapons across the border from the US into Mexico. Recently, activists in the infamous Ciudad Juarez (called "Murder City" by reporter Chuck Bowden) have posted a giant billboard, built of letters made from crushed firearms that reads "NO MORE WEAPONS!" According to reporter Claire Shaeffer-Duffy a study released in March 2013 by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego and the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute "estimates that upward to a quarter million weapons purchased in the U.S. are smuggled into Mexico annually."  

Of course, the profitable trade in illegal weapons isn't the only thing contributing to violence in Mexico: poverty, corruption, extortion, the distortions created by the US appetite for and war on drugs, not to mention the ongoing failures of a largely inoperative investigative and legal system each contribute to the overall picture.

Still, it wasn't lost on us that the latest US mass killing, a rampage in Santa Barbara, happened during the twenty hours we were on the bus from Mazatlan to Phoenix. In fact, according to, there's a mass shooting in the US every five days, and by one count, also in the US, there were 11, 419 gun deaths in 2013. Is Mexico significantly more dangerous than the US? Really?

Let's be clear, and keep our eyes open. Mexico is certainly not without serious problems--the ever larger scope of the drug cartels and the lack of a working justice system are particularly notable--but to pretend that it's somehow especially rough, while the US isn't, or that we "other" North Americans aren't co-contributors to "Mexican violence" is just a big old lie.


You can also read my account of Chuck Bowden's terribly sad and sobering Murder City here:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Incoming Tide

The tide: is it coming in or going
out? With every wave, the sea shifts, breathes.
and so do we.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sound of Running Water 2 (more video haiku)

Sound of Running Water iv (Ice and Bubbles)

Sound of Running Water v (Whirling)

Sound of Running Water vi (Splash!)

Sound of Running Water (Video Haiku)

Sound of Running Water 1

Sound of Running Water II (Cliff Stream)

Sound of Running Water III (Tiny Bubbles)

Notes:  If a short video were to be a haiku, what would its characteristics be? A short observation, a subtle surprise, a lovely sound?  For now, I'm going to work with such a definition, but if you have other suggestions, by all means let me know!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How cold my knees are/ heartwreck/ a love poem

Early morning. Pink light at the window. The cat, curled on the pillow beside me wakes when I do, gently taps my face with her paw.  The furnace cycles on again. I must get up and put wood on the fire. The walls of the house creak with cold.

I draw the curtains, let in the sun, build up the fire, sweep ash and wood fragments into the boiler, turn up the thermostats. Time for coffee. An eagle, carried on an air current, dashes across the sky.

How lovely the light is, how cold my knees are. How age or winter undoes me, piercing my bones. It wrecks my heart to wake here without you.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Secret Lives of Trees

For my father, the very first tree hugger I knew

Born 50 years ago in the center of North America, I grew up in country that just 250 years earlier had been thick with trees. These were not the enormous redwoods, spruce and cedars of the northwest coast from California to British Columbia and Alaska, but they must have been spectacular mature hardwood forests, concatenations of varieties of maples, oaks, and buckeyes, as well as sycamores, black cherry trees, pawpaws, poplars, dogwoods, sumacs, sour gums and sassafras, alternating with grasslands and prairies. Wildcats, bears, deer, wolves and wild boars lived in those forests, as did many varieties of smaller mammals and birds, and fish filled the streams and rivers.

People have inhabited this region since 13,000BC; the landscape is strewn with human leavings, from burial mounds and religious items to networks of trails and evidence of land clearings, longhouses and palisades, and various sorts of agriculture and warfare. Near waterways, some first nations cleared fields and planted them with the "three sisters:" corn, and varieties of beans and squash, as well as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, onions, and leeks; maple sap was also harvested and boiled to make maple syrup; first people also survived by gathering the wild rice that grew near the great lakes, hunting game, stockpiling nuts and berries, and trading footstuffs and other materials.

According to environmental historians, before the mass clearings of the 19th and 20th centuries, the rivers were slow and deep and well sheltered--more conducive to passage by small boats than they are today. Despite the richness of the land--or perhaps because of it, these were not peaceful spaces: at least seventeen nations occupied the land of present day Ohio when European settlers began to arrive, and the histories of strife between one people and another seamed the landscape.

Older nations and newer settlers simply divided themselves up into new alliances as newer settlers arrived, but many of the older battles continued:between the Algonquin speaking Shawnee, the Iriquoian speaking Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat or Huron; between the English and the French; and between human bodies, smallpox and tuberculosis.* By the 1840s, in the wake of the the Indian Removal Act of 1830, white American settlers had compelled Native Americans to cede all of their Ohio land and move westward, to the plains of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, or as it was then known, "Indian territory." With this forced human migration of the last of its earlier inhabitants, the clearing of the land began in earnest.

By the time I was a child, in the 1960s and '70s, the once vast forests had long disappeared; so too had some of the farms that had supplanted them. Where there weren't significant concentrations of settlement, whole swathes of land were being strip-mined for coal and turned to dust.  Highways ribboned through this moonscape; enroute to my paternal grandfather's house, we passed through miles of mud, not a tree or even a blade of grass in sight.

But then the environmental movement gained traction. In the 1970s, new laws compelled strip-miners to remediate the land, to plant trees and grass, to ensure that the once fecund topsoil of the Ohio Valley didn't blow entirely away, leaving nothing behind but stony cracked earth. Plant life recolonized the ground; the rolling forms of the hills were once again visible beneath a carpet of green. Trees filled the medians, grew taller, and clustered in valleys, along streams, and at the borders of public and private land.

bird's nest lined with mosses and lichens

State parks, which then were often scrubby and bare, with newly planted saplings and sour-tasting sulfuric water, are now sanctuaries of spectacular bloom in the spring, and lush greenery in the summer. Streams and waterways clatter cleanly over stones and the trees fill with birds: owls, hawks, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, flickers, jays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, treecreepers, wrens, thrushes, warblers, cardinals, sparrows, grosbeaks, blackbirds and crows.

Sometimes in rural Ohio now, one could imagine that the gritty air of my strip-mine filled childhood, the polluted rivers slick enough with oil to catch fire, were nothing by an apocalytic fiction, a nightmare. But it really happened, just as in the nearby states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, "mountaintop removal" is now a standard coal-mining technique: our greed for what is in the earth outstrips our care for what is on it.

I learned my love of trees from my parents, urban missionaries, who got out of the city and into the woods as often as possible.

Mom and sister Lisa at a state park, 1970s

I remember going with my father on a trip with a group of inner city children on their first walk through the trees.  Although we could see the houses in a nearby development though the sparse ground cover, and the trees were etched with the initials of lovers, many of the young people on that trip were terrified of what might be lurking in the shade.  They had only ever seen tv forests, and their own urban jungle was full of wolves of a distinctly human type.  To break through their fear, my father got all of us engaged in hugging trees. First he did it, then we all did it.  "I love trees!" he said, wrapping his arms around a burr oak. "Feel how strong this tree is. Touch the bark. Is it smooth or rough?"  He got us to collect leaves and to look at them.  In this way, Ohio's trees got under my skin.

I first planted a tree with my maternal grandfather. At the time we planted the maple sapling in his front yard, the tree and I were the same age--four or five years old.  It was was a bit larger than I was. But by the time I was an adult, its branches rose high into the sky.  When my sister Lisa, my brother Les, and I were all our 20s, my grandfather took pictures of us in front of that tree.  It was as he had told me it would be: we and the tree had grown up together.

Brother Leslie and sister Lisa beneath grandparents' tree, 1993.

Me beneath the same tree, 1993. I am 29.

Strange then that several years ago, after I had been living by the sea in Nova Scotia for a number of years, where hardwoods are scarce, but the black spruce grow to the water's edge, on a visit to Ohio I did not recognize the sound of the wind in the leaves of the maple outside of the window of my parents' house. How could I have lost this sound from my aural repertoire? Forgetting it was like forgetting some part of my own name. As I had longed for trees when my family had moved from the leafy suburbs to the stricken scrub and concrete of the inner city, I realized that seaside, I longed for the company of hardwoods, the sound of wind in the branches and the scent of fallen leaves crackling underfoot.

Remnant of old black spruce in salt-wrecked juniper on a Nova Scotia headland

I began to photograph trees then, in part because once again I was living in a place where another sort of industrial stripping, clearcutting, was popular and permitted; it is even of late officially redescribed, particularly when that wood and all of its leavings are destined for pulp mill boilers, as a green practice: thus the stripping and burning of "biomass" counts as a provincial effort to get more of power from an ostensibly renewable resource.   Never mind that it takes many more years to grow trees here in this rocky maritime spot than to harvest and burn them, or that nothing can grow when all of the cover and leavings have been removed from the land.

Nova Scotia clearcut, near Malay Falls

Where I live now, hardwoods once covered the hillsides, or so some of the older people say. In their lifetimes, lynx, bear, deer, moose, mink, otter, wolves and coyote were plentiful and the sea was full of cod. No longer. We have harvested many of the fruits of the earth into extinction; most, so long as we are here, cannot hope to recolonize the earth.

The trees perhaps are an exception, and so we have planted many.  Maples again redden the yard.

Why are trees so compelling? There are many reasons. Like us, they struggle and grow and flower, then wither and tumble; older trees in a mature forest provide canopy for younger trees (sugar maples, for example, cannot survive without this canopy). When trees fall (if they're not scooped up in a "biomass" burning project), the rotting logs become nutrient rich nurseries for all sorts of life, including younger trees. Too we may find shelter or comfort in trees; climb into a tree and you sway in the wind, listen to the birds, drowse against a living body larger than your own.

Brother Leslie in redbud tree

But perhaps we ought to find trees compelling because we are so utterly dependent upon them: in the vast forests of the northwest, historically the highest concentrations of biomass on the planet, nutrients from decayed salmon carried deep into the forest by feeding bears or eagles are found in the cellular structure of the trees. The richest forest growth is found in those spaces thus fertilized. These, too, were frequently the first zones inhabited by people on this continent, where food and shelter were ready to hand and plentiful.  The lifecycles of trees are thus not just metaphors for human growth and development; our past and our future are also written there; if we fail to care for trees, we have sealed our own fates on many parts of the planet.

Cortes Island, British Columbia

It is hard for city dwellers to see and understand this: they think that life is built from concrete and commerce, but every piece of our contemporary existence--even in places where there aren't any trees-- unfolds thanks to trees and the fossilized remains of trees. No aspect of our lives is sustainable without them: not shelter, not warmth, not refrigeration or air conditioning, not air travel, not cooking, not the paper and power and plastics that make up the hardware and software and networks upon which I write and publish this piece or any other.  Let us not forget then to plant and praise and care for trees and the earth and the creatures which they shelter. Without their sanctuary, we would not long survive.

* For a vivid account of what life in the these forests and clearings may have been like several centuries ago, see Joseph Boyden's novel The Orenda. Set in the 17th century, and tracing the struggles for territory and trade networks between Iroquois and Huron nations, The Orenda makes plain that settlement of this continent was, from the outset, a complex and international affair, with many unintended consequences.  See Charles Foran's review in The Globe and Mail here:

Pictures were taken in Nova Scotia, Ohio, and British Columbia.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What am I doing with my life?

Stripes of sun on plaid. A scattering of clothespins in the yard, uncovered by melting snow.
What am I doing with my life?

Everything seems a chore in cold wind. The pond groans and snaps in the light. I listen to the the hum of the fridge and the screel of the clothesline pulley, tugged up and down by the wind.

I surf the textures and still pools of everyday life.  It is as if I am hibernating, waiting for something. Head down, trying to forestall dread: just keep the floor swept and the bed made. Your hair clean.

I am on call, but for what? And who will call? Which are the tasks for which we are preparing, squinting our eyes against the sun?