Thursday, December 31, 2015

One horizon always hides another

I am speaking to my parents on Christmas day. It is unseasonably warm across much of the continent; storms brew over southern coasts.  My father wants my mother to tell me a story.  My mother has had a bad cold; such heat makes everyone sick my father says. And so my mother begins.  At the farmer's market she met an elderly African American woman.  They chewed over the weather, as everyone does, and how many were ill.  The woman told her how her grandmother used to say that a green winter brings many more stones to the graveyard. We hold this line as if it were a stone; we run it in and out of our mouths; we keep it, not as solace, but sooth, a telling insight.

One horizon always hides another--this too is not my line, but Kim Thuy's, from Ru. I like it because it reminds me of another, the title and key insight of a Kenneth Koch poem: One Train May Hide Another, a title inspired by a sign at a railroad crossing. Wise words from a fellow Ohioan at the cusp of the new year, when rain obscures our sense of winter, and passing events hide the days to come, the approaching trains we cannot yet see.  In his poem Koch advises watching, stillness, patience--good to remember on those days in between, when it sometimes feels as if nothing is happening:

It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

The full poem below. 

One Train May Hide Another

Kenneth Koch, 1925 - 2002

(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person’s reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you’re not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia
     Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another--one colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath
     may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple--this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother’s bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter’s bag one finds oneself confronted by
     the mother’s
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love
     or the same love
As when “I love you” suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when “I’m full of doubts”
Hides “I’m certain about something and it is that”
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the
     Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading 
    A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you’re asleep there, and
One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
     foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It 
     can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fallen peonies

Almost winter, and Elisabeth has cut the peonies and laid them to rest.

It is not yet 5 pm and already the light is falling, failing. Faint pinks score the clouds and then dissipate. The balustrade glows white against the looming dark. A skim of ice stills the surface of the pond all day, a brittle solid checking waves, while uphill, sheets flap right off the line in the wind.  The top has sheared right off the old lichen covered spruce that guards the edge of the drive, and white leaves lie scattered about the raspberry canes and all up and down the road. A stripping wind last night laid them all low. 

Late morning, ducks cackle at the back of the pond.  Marsh grasses are brown and flattened, the colour of the dog's back.  We walk out the road and into the wind, the coolness against our teeth bracing, the sea grey and rumpled under a ridged grey sky. Cotton topped grasses flair against the fruiting mosses, ditches and lowlands are damp with icy streams. Coyote scat litters the road; Enya races up lanes and down deer paths, but then hurries back again, nervy with scent and danger.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What the dog's nose knows, or the art of noticing with the dog (art walk challenge #1)

A ripening apple

Just as birds need to fly and deer need to run, we need to be happy.
Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá

Every place structures our perceptions; so too, does every sort of being. We all know this, and yet we rarely attend fully enough, in our daily lives, to the implications of such insights.  While we might be quick to agree that what one notices while walking on a city street is dramatically different than what one hears or smells while out in the woods--the roar of traffic drowns out the subtle scrape of drying leaf against leaf in the breeze, or the lilt of birdsong--we're noticeably less willing to entertain other entities' or creatures' perceptual modes as a part of our own, unless we're trained observers of one sort or another. 

And yet everyone who lives with a dog walks such a path daily: the dog regularly notices things we do not, and bit by bit, our association with a dog tunes our apperceptions to theirs. We see, by dint of daily walking together, that here, by this tree, is a particularly exciting scent, while that patch of grass there is somewhat frightening. The dog's responses begin to frame our own, even when we don't quite understand what is going on. For example, a friend who lives in urban Vancouver recently reported taking her dog, a young Great Dane, for a walk in the predawn morning. All of a sudden the dog began growling.  My friend neither sensed nor saw the trouble, thought her dog had been somehow startled by a blowing leaf. And then the lights from a passing car illuminated a row of coyote eyes. Smart dog! writes my friend, relieved to have arrived back home safely. 

Enya sniffs for field mice

Often enough, what the dog senses is invisible to us, and thus appears somehow nonsensical, irrational, idiosyncratic. What might we see or understand, however, if we attempted to walk through the world guided not by our own imperatives, but by the dog's? And why stop there? Why not follow a deer path and learn to notice what a deer might?  What about following a line of current, or the trajectory of a falling leaf? How would we walk through or map the world differently? What would we hear or smell or see otherwise? What novelties would strike us? How would our inner sensory and kinesthetic maps alter? Would our experience of walking, itself change, and how?  

Leaving aside for now the great epistemological debates about what we might ever know of another being's ways of knowing (culture and learning suggest we can share something on this front,) and the challenge of tempering or overcoming our tendencies towards anthropocentrism, would or could a simple set of exercises--"art walks" say--begin to help us to attune ourselves to alternately lived (and thus possible) interactions in the worlds where we live?

Such questions led to what I am calling my "art walk challenge #1: while out for a walk, maybe with a dog, notice and document zones where two or more life forms enter into conflict, avoidance and/or collaboration."

we follow a deer path down to the water (pond)

I made and annotated my own walk on and around the grounds where I live, in rural coastal Nova Scotia, and then invited others living elsewhere to do likewise. I offer a selection of notes from my walk, and others' responses below.  As I read over the responses I've collected, I'm struck by how like poetry they are--perhaps because poetry too is an art of aerial or subterranean attunement, a mode in or by which one hears or notices things that pass above and below the threshold of ordinary experience. Does this mean that poetry, too, is an art of listening with the dog? (Or sometimes, perhaps, with the deer?)

orchard where the deer (dog and crows) graze

My notes from Art Walk Challenge #1 (24 October 2015) are as follows: "Here, the deer avail themselves of apples from our trees and walk on paths that we've made. But we also follow deer trails to the pond (human made) and through the woods.  The dog follows other deer paths, munches on crab legs dropped by gulls, digs in mouse holes, chases grouse. We come across a rat's nest a neighbour has tossed from a barn. Dog drinks from ditches and at the edge of the bog."

Enya crunches up the remains of a crab where a gull dropped the carcass on the rocks in order to break it open

pond edge where one deer path ends

found on a neighbour's land: tossed out rat's nest

Video clip: Enya chases a spruce grouse

Friends responded as follows: 
Devon Query (Eastern Shore, Nova Scotia) writes, "Out with the dogs down to our shoreline. A feather, no two(!) are consumed immediately.....small ones, gull feathers.....then a crab part by the other dog. Finally the piece de resistance! A large gray gull feather.....NOT to be consumed here....but ferried back to the house for the morning's amusement!
Thanks gulls!"

Carol Bruneau (Halifax, Nova Scotia) sends along a picture, which she captions,
'Here's my deerstalker scenting prey in the urban wilderness:"

Faizal Deen (Ottawa, but remembering South Korea) is prompted by the video of Enya chasing a spruce grouse to write "Beautiful and free. Sabrina would go after the quails on Namsan when we lived in Seoul. It always made me nervous because had she caught one, we would've been fined and she could've even been taken away from me and euthanized. So, we always went to the mountain under the deep cover of night and she would run her heart out and chase all manner of beasts."

I note that Faizal's remembered walk documents not simply encounters or collaborations (don't the quail sometimes draw the dog on, and work to decoy it from a nest or another sensitive area?) but potential conflicts between his dog and quail (finding, flushing out and possibly killing birds in the dark), and potential conflicts between doggish pleasures and the law, which is to say, between the law and the dog's human companion (punishable by removal and death of the dog.)

Who knew that a simple walk could uncover so much? And doesn't it always, if we've attuned ourselves to notice? 

Of course, the sort of "tuning" I'm describing here, and asking my friends and readers to consider practicing, is not always so romantic.  It is also a deep part of our social and historical experience, now muted by urban habits, the comforts of modern shelters and our typical patterns of consumption. A good hunter or a nomad for example, (whether human or non human) regularly must perceive as another does in order to survive. But then, so do children, any creature that is lost, or any person or creature who lives without adequate shelter or food. Nervy and alarmed, we learn to read others' patterns and pathways, and to map out escape routes and diversions, as well as others' garbage dumps.  

From where I sit, in rural Nova Scotia, I cannot truly walk the routes taken by Syrian refugees as they flee the shifting and hostile landscapes of war and asylum. But I can begin to imagine these routes, in all of their heart-thumping horror and impossible hope--and indeed I must, and by so imagining be driven to act, if I am going to maintain that social awareness does any good good at all.

Looking towards the back of the pond where sea ducks nest

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What we're doing to stay afloat--the book!!

Yes, it is true, by the end of October 2015, What we're doing to stay afloat will be available in book form. 

The end of September and it was all done: the pages checked and double-checked and the cover proofed in emails and phone calls back and forth between publisher, designers, copy-editor and me. Ten days earlier the version I'd corrected vanished from the book designer's in-box; for some reason her email server would not accept messages from any of my accounts. We waded through the details on the phone and I sent my marked-up copy from my partner's email account. Success! One more version to proof, which we did, and then everything was sent off to the printer. Now we wait, and sometime towards the end of October there will be a book, a tangible object to touch and to hold, to open, to leaf through, to read.

Where can you get a copy? You can email me, leave me a message in the comments section of this blog or via facebook messenger, or order a copy directly from Indigo Books here
or Nimbus Publishing here

Meanwhile, I'm also planning, building a website for, and soon will be installing my first solo video installation, entitled Flows (Given Water).  The show features video haikus of meltwater, looped projections of shifting inter-tidal zones, and enormous silent projections of moon jellies propelling themselves through deep green seawater. The weather turns rainy, and my dreams, too, are submerged in water greens and dim anxieties: is any of it good enough? Have I worked through my ideas fully enough? Will others see what I see, or wish to stop and muse in these spaces of drift and damp? I hope, and will know more in time.

Water, water everywhere--and yes, at the show, I'll be offering water (locally sourced, of course,) to drink!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice MovementsOctavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements by Walidah Imarisha

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Octavia Butler was the first well-known African American woman author of science fiction. Her work, always set in dystopic times and places very closely modeled on the contemporary US, nevertheless imagined other possibilities, including novel approaches to race, gender and species inter-relations. For example, Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993) uses the stories of an empath, a woman crippled by the pain of others, to argue that hope and regrowth must be possible, even at what seems to be the end of time. The book begins with words of wisdom from a holy book called Earthseed: The Books of the Living: "All that you touch is change. All that you change changes you."

Butler died in 2006; since her death, her influence and readership have continued to grow; indeed, those words of wisdom from the beginning of the Parable of the Sower have become an activist mantra of sorts, particularly among activists of colour in American cities. Octavia's Brood is at once a book and a project designed to introduce Butler's radical imagination to generations of new readers and activist-artists.

Octavia's Brood, the book, begins with Detroit-based co-editor adrienne maree brown's proposition that "All social justice work is science fiction. We are imagining a world free of injustice a world that doesn't exist yet." A tangible, printed companion an online presence ( and a series of workshops, in which participants are invited to write science fiction as a part of their organizing and social justice work, Octavia's Brood is about the ways that art and culture allow us to time travel, to imagine others' lives, to revisit history, to cultivate alternative futures and alternative lives. Walidah Imarisha, Oregon based co-editor of the volume with adrienne maree brown, argues that science fiction is already at the root of survival for many people of colour in the contemporary americas: "And for those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us" (5).

The collection is uneven--the idea of activism as science fiction is stronger than many of the stories that result from science fiction writing workshops with activists and social justice workers. But this does not really matter. As adrienne maree brown writes, "we hold so many worlds inside us. So many futures. It is our radical responsibility to share these worlds, to replant them in the soil of our society as seeds for the type of justice we want and need" (278). There is much to learn here.

Octavia's Brood is an important and necessary book, a crucial tool for teaching, thinking and (re)imaging past, present and future.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Another kind of wildness

(Sonnet. Words yanked from "returning the books to their shelves" by Bernadette Mayer)

city          Feeling far from the city finally in Desolation.
time         Time to walk and stretch and swim and think until
19            19 o'clock in the evening
stream     when I hope we will eat a big fish you caught in the tide stream.
taxi          It's running so fast gulls taxi by
it              on blocks of driftwood; wing back; do it
mulch      again. Scent of kelp sea urchin and dessicated crab mulching
then         on the shore. The dog sniffs, then pounces cracking
window   shells with her teeth, each delicious crab leg a window on
nothing    another kind of wildness. Nothing can take this from her.
books       Like I here with my sketchpad and books,
cold         feet slippered against the cold, disregarding
phone      the insistent phone, opening turning
shelves    emptying the shelves of ordinary life.

I finish reading the 25th anniversary edition of Bernadette Mayer's wonderful Sonnets (Tender Buttons Press, 2014) while we are anchored in Desolation Sound. Despite their distance from where I am, Mayer's urban words and images suffuse my dreams, and I tap away at her lines, trying to understand how they fit together. One of Mayer's projects in particular, undertaken with Philip Good, strikes me: a list of fourteen words finds its way into a sonnet, one word per line (66). I decide I will try to co-compose with Meyer, by pulling words from another of her pieces that I love very much, a love sonnet entitled "returning the books to their shelves" (67).But as soon as I've decided on this method and pulled the words from Mayer's poem, I think, I can't make a poem from these words! I'm north of 50 degrees north latitude--what have I to do with cities, time, taxis, windows, phones or shelves? But as soon as I let the poem begin with that dilemma, the rest follows: being where I am lets me empty these words of their ordinary contexts and make other associations. Evidently, the neighbourhood is everything, no matter where you are.

Image: reflections north of 50.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Departure song

so much still to do...

I hold my breath before all of the things done to be done to be undone
before all of the things I've thought about forgotten or otherwise neglected

I hold my breath before doing or undoing what must be done or undone
before easy to finish tasks and difficult to finish tasks
before tasks that should be easy to finish but that are difficult to finish
before tasks that should be difficult to finish but that are easy to finish
I hold my breath in thinking of the dust under the bed
which I may or may not be sweeping up

I hold my breath before deciding
among the tasks that must be done or undone
what I am to bring with me and what I am to leave
what I must remember and what I may forget
(not leaving out how I may forget what I must remember)

I hold my breath before doing or undoing before undoing what I should be doing
and doing what I should be undoing
I hold my breath before hauling down or up the duffel bags
before opening them or closing them
and choosing and unchoosing what I am putting in them or taking out of them
before folding and unfolding clothing
before choosing and unchoosing sweaters
before counting and uncounting socks
before stacking and unstacking books boots and flashlights
before remembering and then forgetting the batteries

I hold my breath before taking or leaving what I am taking and leaving
before leaving what I ought to be taking and taking what I ought to be leaving
before zipping or unzipping the duffel bags and filling or unfilling them

I hold my breath before thinking of arriving
before leaving and thinking of leaving
before doing and undoing what must be done as I wish and do not wish to depart

I hold my breath before thinking of leaving
before arriving and thinking of arriving
before doing and undoing what must be done as I wish and wish again to arrive.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Leaf, bloom, water

Wild strawberry blossoms

In fog again, world
without horizon; you are seized
by the smallest things.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sun salutations don't make the sun emerge

Enya in bladderwrack with her stick

An island obscuring fog
drapes mist over every
surface, beading window
panes dog's belly pine needles
and the arms of my sweater
when I step on the porch to watch
an acrobatic crow draw lines in air.
Water boiled:: tea steeped:: dog fed.
Permutations of downward facing dog
(enhanced with growling): sun
salutations don't make the sun emerge.
Head stand; I land; still this damp

Fog snared spiderweb


The daily not-quite sonnet: 13x I'm calling it, my private little experiment with writing poems that are just 13 lines long.  It's strange, this practice of writing a poem of a defined length. Each poem becomes like a puzzle, a box of a defined size into which you must fit odd heterogeneous items so that when you're done the box has become a drawer full of interesting oddities and meaningful content.

Each length exacts its own pressure and creates its own surprises. What happens when you cheat a sonnet by one line? In my case--I think--the poem wakes up, becomes stranger, more colloquial. Is this my imagination, or is there really so much difference between one line count and another? I will have to continue with my experiment to see.  Are 13 lines really more light-hearted than 14? Is it habit or a subtle interruption of habit that makes me think so?

All photos taken today in West Quoddy in the fog. 

Leaf captured fog

Claw Foot Ease Oh Cherries (a poetry recipe)

Take a cherry.
Kiss it.
Find some more cherries.
Get them to beat the eggs.
Add shugah.
And spice.
And something very nice.
Whip it.
Dish it.
Bake it.
Eat it
with relish.

This is a silly nonsense poem that I wrote with Gary Markle one evening in November while we were eating a clafoutis aux poires (recipe below) and inventing mangled franglais phrases. I think initially I was trying to write down the recipe, but because I couldn't remember it, we began making up ways of treating dear ones (cherries/ cheris/ cheries), tenderly, deliciously. It reminded me of my first poetry-writing experiences, making up ridiculous rhymes with my maternal grandfather, Bill Smith. I can still recite some of them by heart: I stood sitting on the ceiling/eating popcorn by the peck/filled me up way past the neck/by heck! Is all silly poetry about eating, or loving and eating?

How to make pear (or any fruit) clafoutis

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Lightly butter a deep round (glass) baking dish and arrange cut and seeded fruit in it.
(Squeeze lemon juice on fruit if necessary to keep it from browning.)

Mix together
3-4 eggs
1/3 c. sugar
a scant 1/2 c. flour
1 3/4 c. milk
You can also mix in a dash of an appropriate spice (allspice is nice with pears) and 2-3 T of a fruity liquor (orange, say) or brandy.

Pour the mixture over the fruit and bake at 400F for 30-35 minutes.

If you are using frozen fruit use 4 eggs and slightly less milk.
Tropical fruits require less milk still and are nice with rum, vanilla, grated coconut and spice mixtures involving cloves.

"Pursuing the Fireflies of our Thinking": Reading Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez

Dolphins in the Sea of Cortez

Finally, after more than a decade of intending to do so, I have gotten around to reading John Steinbeck's Log from The Sea of Cortez, and I find that it has peculiar resonances with my own life. Not only is it the single best and most hilarious account I've ever read of expedition planning--the gap between what one thinks one will need at sea, and what one actually needs (oh the things that can go wrong!)--the Log from The Sea of Cortez crystallizes a memory of what the Sea was like some seventy years ago, before the US stopped the last trickle of water from the Colorado River from draining into Mexico, and thus into the top of the Sea. 

In 2015, as we witness one extinction after another from overfishing, pollution, climate change, and multi-level trophic cascades, the biological riches of the world Steinbeck describes seem extraordinary, unbelievable even. In nearly twenty years of sailing in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, the only place in my experience as rich with life as the Sea of Cortez were certain rookeries in the Arctic, and the Bellot Strait in August. But what Steinbeck describes is so much richer, so much more lively than anything I've seen that it seems like fiction. I am struck by disbelief, akin to the sensation of doubt provoked by reports from John Cabot's 1497 crossing of the Grand Banks, that the cod were so plentiful that the crew just dropped baskets overboard and drew them up. We are so quickly habituated to the appearance of scarcity, that reports of plenty come to seem unlikely exaggerations.  But what if they are not? What if we read these reports as if they were measures that mattered?  How then would they matter to us? Steinbeck's Log offers a salutary caution even here: "The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing" (137). 

Pelican hiding its catch from gulls

How should we treat the sorts of information that Steinbeck's Log offers us? A log (like a blog,) is neither a place of measurements, really, nor proofs. It is a space of observation and daily reflection, a space where one pursues what Steinbeck calls "the fireflies of our thinking," those winking buzzing little notions and flashes of insight, born of persistence, study and circumstance. A log is a strange sort of document, filled with chance, weather and trivia, and yet from these elements both journeys and knowing may be built. Below then, some facts, and then several of the firefly flashes provoked by my reading of Steinbeck's text.

Gull surf fishing in La Ramada, Sea of Cortez

In 1940, John Steinbeck set out on a 4000 mile round trip from Monterey, California, up into the Sea of Cortez and back with his friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts and a crew of fisherman aboard the sardine fishing vessel, the Western Flyer. Ricketts was a biologist who made his living from collecting, preserving and selling specimens to schools and laboratories--everything from skeletons to slides. He was also a keen observer of the intertidal zone, and had co-authored a book that became an essential guidebook to marine life along the US Pacific Coast, Between Pacific Tides (1939). Steinbeck, for his part, had recently published Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The trip into the Sea of Cortez was to be a scientific collecting mission, a speedy run at "the greatest lot of specimens...collected in the Gulf by any single expedition"(xvi).   When Ricketts and Steinbeck returned home, they co-produced a massive volume entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.  That book contained the Log, a narrative account of the journey, drafted by Steinbeck on the basis of Ricketts' journals and articles, and a massive catalog of the marine life they'd found, some 600 pages. The book was published by Viking in 1941. Ten years later, after Ricketts was dead, and Steinbeck an increasingly prominent novelist and scriptwriter, Viking released the Log as a stand-alone publication under Steinbeck's name. It has not since been out of print.

In the shallows at Caleta Partida, Isla Espiritu Santo (2015)

1.  Small things strike me as I read the book. Not only do I feel how much emptier the Sea is now than when Steinbeck and Ricketts made their voyage, but this year, returning after several years away, we notice that the Sea seems far emptier than we've ever previously seen it. In the shallows at Caleta Partida, on Espiritu Santo Island, and further north, in San Juanico along the shore, the sands are almost barren: there are no sea stars, fewer crabs; we see no wiggling shrimp, few little fish, never sponges or anenomes or nudibranches or sea cucumbers.  Are they all dead? Was some quantity of life displaced or destroyed by Hurricane Odile last fall? Has overfishing destroyed them? Or the relentless pollution of years of boaters and campers? Or do we simply not know how to look? Have we failed to look, and all those creatures are here, hidden somehow? What of all of the dead birds we found on every beach, the piles and piles of feathers, the puff of once fatty grebe chest, the stacks of blasted bodies? Is this all hurricane damage, or something else? How will we know? Is anyone tracking these things? Should we be reporting in (and to whom?) when we find our tenth dead bird in fifteen minutes on a single beach, after finding twenty on another beach the day before? And what of the blackened, dessicated turtle heads we saw on Isla San Francisco? That, we're reasonably sure, is human depradation, thanks to an illegal trade in turtle shells and oil. We see one or two live turtles drifting lazily by, but dead turtles nearing a hundred.

Fishermen setting out in a panga from the beach in La Paz (2015)

2. Another thing that strikes me is the way the journey Steinbeck recounts takes place during a time of war--or rather, in the days leading up to US involvement in World War II. On the European front, war had been raging for half a year already when the Western Flyer set out, but war as such had not yet come home to most citizens. Just so, eleven years ago, as we readied Quoddy's Run to leave the navy town of San Diego, war planes were shrieking overhead while ships departed the harbour at night in total blackout. (You could read the size and shape of the ship by counting how long the lights on the opposite shore were blotted out.) War was underway in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration was eager to revenge itself on Iraq, but war on the homefront was, for most citizens simply still a matter of bold statements and ideological abstractions.

3. Because we began long distance sailing before communications were as ubiquitous as they are now, we too have experienced the slipping away of "that other world that others call reality" as Steinbeck puts it.  We know what it is to lose track of the news and national preoccupations in favour of the intensity of being where we are, and we regularly still try to permit ourselves this sort of understanding: the focus on a single ripple or line of colour, a tiny desert flower, the savour of tortillas and chiles rellenos, the details of shoreline and wind and tide and weather predictions, the exact colours of the sunset, the rhythms of light and dark, of the new puppy's bowels, of our reading or writing or drawing. As Steinbeck writes:

The world and the war had become remote to us; all the immediacies of our usual lives had slowed up...We rather resented going back to newspaper and telegrams and business. We had been drifting in some kind of dual world--a parallel realistic world; all of the preoccupations of the world we came from...were to us filled with mental mirage. Modern economies; war drives; party affiliations and lives... [F]or us the factor of time had changed the low tides were our clock and the throbbing engine our second hand (200).

Sunrise, Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez

4. I think about the pedagogical implications or usefulness of this book, particularly for a documentary or travel course, despite its patronizing romanticism about "Indians" and Mexicans and the discussion of women as if they were appendages. These are ways of thinking and speaking that should grate on contemporary students--they grate on me--and yet perhaps it is salutary now and then to read what seventy years ago was widely hailed as acceptable, even radical or admirable prose. How will generations hence read our own unexamined prejudices and vocabularies; will they ring to them as strangely as Steinbeck's do to us?

5. Steinbeck's humorous tone is a balm, likewise the self-mocking account of how ill much of their most fancy and "necessary" gear  really served. Equally important are the questions about how to tell about the voyage once it is over: What really happened? When? What really mattered? Were you open to change? How did you change? How do you know? On such a voyage, what you learn becomes a whole-body experience, an immersion in an environment and a set of relationships with and against your inner resistances. This is perhaps another argument (I've been collecting them) for the importance of fieldwork to thinking; there's only so much you can learn by sitting in a library.  Knowing isn't the gathering; it's what you do with that later. But first you need time away from the preoccupations of the world to drift in new spaces. Likewise, in order really to "pursue the fireflies of one's thinking," one also needs fellow travelers, shipmates with whom to muse. Together, because you are sharing these experiences, you try to parse and make sense of the people and situations and creatures and phenomena that you encounter. No one draws out the meanings of things entirely alone (surely this is why Marike and I so often wander, conversationally, around the globe at night).

Wall in La Paz that cites Benito Juarez, "Between individuals, as among nations, respect for others' rights is peace (la paz)."

6. Important too are Steinbeck's discussions of unintended consequences--for example, the nefariousness of the ostensibly admirable interleaving of efficiency and politics that results in Japanese draggers scouring Mexican waters for shrimp off of Guaymas in 1940, and then throwing out millions of tons of valuable fish as bycatch (chapter 27), a wild illogic that continues still. Or there is the horrifying effort, aboard the Western Flyer, to outwait a dying shark on the deck, which ends by immersing it in a tank of formaldehyde: "Wishing to preserve him, we did not kill him, thinking he would die quickly" (175). But the shark did not die. Steinbeck finds a moral here about how the shark's tenacity, its clinging to its bait and its life also made its death monstrous, but I think the monstrousness of this death says far more about how people instrumentalize animals and then allow them to suffer horribly--whether in full view as the shark was, or, as is more common, in extermination zones hidden from our delicate sensibilities and purview.

In the log, Steinbeck writes about what we now very easily call "ecological" relations, of webs and relationships of interdependence--although in order to reach the biological and intellectual conclusions he comes to with Ricketts and the number of scientists who work over their findings, they must kill thousands upon thousands of creatures. Observation, at their speed, as Steinbeck comments, is not nearly enough. They have miles to go and other bodies to collect. The deaths that they cause are thus treated as the bycatch of science: its steadfast pursuit of one kind of knowledge about sea creatures rests firmly upon not really knowing what it does to them when they are plucked from the sea. (So much of our culture seems built thus.) In his discussion of "non-teleological thinking," (one of Ricketts' favourite themes), Steinbeck emerges as a bit of a social Darwinist, albeit in paradoxical form: what survives is what survives; things will not always happen the way you think they will. This turns him into an apologist for horrors now and then, but at least a more or less honest one: for the most part, he sees what he does.  But is that enough? Isn't this another case where, to turn his own queries back to him, knowledge doesn't lead to knowing? Just what are my forms of bycatch; do I have any idea as I jet hither and yon, producing garbage and sewage and petrol-laced desires?

Along the boardwalk (malecon) in La Paz

7. Elsewhere (but isn't this a version of the same place, but built of the sorts of things I really do want to see?) I love the flash of recognition I get when Steinbeck describes the dogs of La Paz (105), or the hazy light of the Sea, or the suddenness of its fog, the malign feelings one gets in certain places (Timbabichi for us), the glitter of stars above and sparkling bioluminescence below. He captures the way the Sea stays with you, climbs into your heart, infects your sense of trajectory, so that whaterver you do, you always also promise to return. There is something here that gets into you and will not let you go....

La Paz harbourfront and malecon

8. One further, odd note: in his long memorial piece on Ricketts, published as an appendix to this volume, Steinbeck notes that when Ricketts died in 1948, (killed by a train smashing into his car as he was traversing the tracks at a blind crossing,) the two friends were distilling the lessons from their Cortez journey, and preparing for another collecting voyage on Haida Gwaii.  Steinbeck writes:

At the time of Ed's death our plans were completed, tickets bought, containers and collecting equipment ready for a long collecting trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands...There was one deep bay with a long narrow opening where we thought we might observe some changes in animal forms due to a specialized life and a long period of isolation. Ed was to have started within a month and I was to have joined him there. Maybe someone else will study that little island sea (212).

I wonder who has, and what we, too, will find there, on Haida Gwaii, going as we will, fresh from here.

Not much work for fishermen: pangas pulled up on shore (2015)


John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. London and New York: Penguin Classic Edition, 2000.

My understanding of "multilyered trophic cascades"--what happened for example as the East Coast cod fishery collapsed, and the niches within which several layers of species existed shifted--is informed by the work of biologists Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, and Julia Whitty's beautifully written book, Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Mariner Books): 2010. (See especially pp. 146-150 on the cod collapse.) Whitty and Worms both also write of the ways in which we become accustomed to scarcity in the seas, and recalibrate our expectations, so that what we are now seeing seems as if it has always been. Interestingly enough, as Whitty notes, "Worm and Myers' analysis [of the numbers of large fish that were readily available fifty and sixty years ago] was based....on catch reports from Japanese longliners of the 1950s" (148).

Ricketts and Steinbeck were interested in studying Masset Inlet, on Graham Island. It appears that one of the first publications to gather baseline data on marine invertebrates on Haida Gwaii is a Parks Canada Technical Report: N.A. Sloan, P.A. Bartier and W.C. Austin, Living Marine Legacy of Gwaii Haanas II: Marine Invertebrate Baseline to 2000 and Invertebrate-related Management Issues.  December 2001. Available online from the government of Canada, here:

North coast reflections, British Columbia

Friday, May 29, 2015


goose feather snared by a thorny wild rose stem

While clearing alders
I am pricked by a wild rose,
whose touch still festers.

What's the news?

What's the news? I don't know
I haven't been listening to the radio,
but the daffodils are blaring. Meanwhile
morning and evening the peepers are
chanting.  Deer clatter along the breakwater and
into the garden--not a tulip to be found. We've caged the
anemone pulsatilla: still the bees gather.
Hummingbirds buzz our heads; swallows
nest again above the door.
I saw whitecaps in Dufferin Harbour today
on my way to get my hair cut, but here
it's almost still. Fog overtakes the islands,
draws up its noose.

Anemone pulsatilla

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

June bug

Lichens grow on the porch chair

Fog obscures the islands

It speaks of rain Ramey says (meaning the radio, the sky or 
the loons). I heard them yelping yesterday in the other bay, I'd thought
they were coyotes. Floods in Texas but here a soft shower, which is more like 
a mist (a marine layer they call it in San Diego, as if 
fog were a stranger to them). 
Not like here, where it's intimate and
cellular, a semi permanent inhabitant of the pores. Throb 
of the lobster boats coming in to dock, gulls
screeling behind them, all of them invisible, almost 
imaginary. Soft hiss and thump as 
their wakes come ashore. Somewhere (not here)
the sun is high and hot and annoying
as a June bug.

Ferns unfurl
Reflection in rain

Drive-by warmth ( on reaching the end of a journal)

violet in the rain and grass

How quickly
time passes. Midnight, in
a damp season

to help, no matter
your trouble)

pages ago
we sailed between
desert isles

sexual impotence
we fix all)

now violets
flock and scatter amid
greening grass

(envy or
headache or bad luck
or witchcraft)

pages ago,
we sought shade from heat,
too-bright sun

(there are those
who pay to do you
ill, you know)

now I curl
with dog and blanket
by the fire

 (her skin so
thin she feels your eyes):
drive-by warmth

(if you are
a victim of bad
luck or doubt)

scrounge bravely
before a Nova
Scotia spring

page from a journal (with ad for a tarot reading) February to May 2015

This poem is another "flock of lunes," of course, or rather, my "mistaken" lunes, consisting of stanzas formed from lines of 3 syllables, 5 syllables and 3 again. It is literally my last entry in a particular notebook, interleaved with lines and translations from earlier pages.

Monday, May 25, 2015

All the night flights to Europe

An array of contrails
overhead, like a child's
drawing of the sun. Here
where land and sea conmingle:
all the night flights to Europe.

Lately, because I have been reading them, I too have been trying to write some tankas, a 31-syllable form of Japanese "diary" or daily verse. Harryette Mullen, for example, in Urban Tumbleweed (2013), collects and reworks the contents of her "tanka diary," daily short poems, many built from observations made during walks in and around Los Angeles. Mullen invents her own three-line form of tanka, and here writes within the frame of what I would call "urban naturalism," an emerging genre, a space of metropolitan commonplaces readers tend to fall upon with rapture, recognizing just that sort of incident, or this view in Los Angeles, or a particular news item. Urban Tumbleweed seems an apt title, for the poems snag all sorts of detritus, and then pile up against odd walls, spaces you never thought to find them--and then also, at all of the usual fencerows and barriers--for example this one, all to familiar to so many African Americans:

"Visiting with us in Los Angeles, our friend
went out for a sunny walk, returned
with wrists bound, misapprehended by cops" (94).

Perhaps my favourite of Mullen's tankas is another visitor poem, but sweetly surprising, unbinding:

"My visitor from Nebraska buys
a sack of assorted seashells at a souvenir shop,
then scatters them along the beach" (22).

My own experiments with the genre have seemed far more leaden and fraught; like shot scattering, or an old bit of cotton cloth tearing suddenly in every direction, the words pull apart, leaving nothing. After weeks of trying I have just two or three poems, the one above, another half assembled, and this one, from early April:

Blue sea, bitter wind
snow foundering. New dog stands
in ditchwater, watches
chickadees pluck seeds
from our outstretched hands.

Who knew brevity could be so hard?