Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The song in my head today, on Vancouver's rainiest August day ever.

(Andy Partridge)

Orange and lemon
Raincoats roll and tumble
Together, just liked fruit tipped from a tray
Pineapple wet heads
Watch new hairdos crumble
As scenery sunlight shifts away

Ballet for a rainy day
Silent film of melting miracle play

Apples and cherries
Are varnished in water
Despite striped awnings bright dismay
I push my paintbrush
To conjure a new world
While this one is slowly washed away

Ballet for a rainy day
Silent film of melting miracle play
Dancing out there through my window
To the backdrop of a slow descending grey

When it rains it rains
All the colors in my paintbox
When it rains it rains
Tickets for the front row seats
Up on the rooftops

Orange and lemon
Raincoats roll and tumble
apples and cherries
Together, dropped in diamond disarray

Ballet for a rainy day
Silent film of melting miracle play
Dancing out there through my window
Behind the curtain silver falling
Ballet for a rainy day
Silent film of melting miracle play
Dancing out there through my window
To the backdrop of a slow descending grey

Monday, August 30, 2010

In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, section editor Sam Tanenhaus writes favorably of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, beginning first with Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, published a week before 9/11.

Of the book, Tanenhaus has this to say: “The Corrections towered out of the rubble, at once a monument to a world destroyed and a beacon lighting the way for a new kind of novel that might break the suffocating grip of postmodernism.” From there he cites James Woods on the suffocaters, those who produce “curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things…but do not know a single human being,” before once again praising Franzen’s achievement, how he “cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism,” all of which sent me to my (now tidy) bookshelves, where I (easily) found Ben Marcus’s October 2005 Harper’s article “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction”.

Marcus writes:

In the literary world, it’s not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading, or that our reading faculties might actually be improved. Mentions of the brain imply effort, and effort is the last thing we are supposed to request of a reader. Language is meant to flow predigested, like liquid down a feeding tube. Instead of the brain, it’s the heart that writers are told they must reach in order to move readers…

Have I read The Corrections? I began the book, but did not get very far. Have I read Marcus? I picked up Notable American Women and, despite my best efforts, lost interest halfway through.

I don’t know, maybe it’s me. Maybe I'm one of those “single human being[s]."

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Also from the Canadian Style Guide (1997):

7.04 Imperatives, exclamations and indirect questions

Use a period after a mild imperative or exclamation:

If you want to know who is going to change this country, go home and look in the mirror.
-- Maude Barlow

U-turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.
-- Margaret Thatcher

Friday, August 27, 2010

From the very witty Canadian Style Guide (1997):

2.03 Nouns with adjectives and participles

a) Hyphenate noun-plus-adjective compounds (in that order), whether used attributively or predicatively:

duty-free goods
tax-exempt bond

b) Hyphenate noun-plus-participle compounds regardless of position:

snow-capped mountains
a time-consuming activity


There are a number of them, including handmade and handwritten.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It was my birthday this week. Judy gave me a very nice shirt and a Roomba, what looks like a 35mm motion picture film canister but is in fact a robot vacuum cleaner. Spent an hour watching this thing bump around the living room. Like the house fly, it too has a pattern -- but if you walked in on it, you might easily mistake it for a drunken pet.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

With respect to the previous post, Beryl asked, “What do you mean by a 'lifestyle-oriented book'?”

There could be more than one answer to this. For example, if a fishing vest were designed to carry a book, one book could be on the mechanics of fishing, such as what flies to use and when, while another could be by British Columbia author Roderick Haig-Brown, who wrote meditations on fishing and nature.

A third option could be a book that, on the surface, has nothing to do with fishing but is metaphorically related. Maybe a detective novel, or a book of poems. Or a complete non-sequitir, if that is possible anymore.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The ongoing cleaning of my study had me visiting the local Liquor Control Board for boxes. Did a little better purging myself of books this year than in past years, owing in part to the online availability of titles I occasionally need access to, but because of their thoughtless design cannot stand having around.

Something that occurred to me this year was how much I loathe the 6" x 9" book format, and how much I like pocketbooks (6.75" x 4"), or those even smaller, like Judy’s edition of Francis Ponge’s Soap. Ponge’s book is one I often take with me in the event the person I am meeting is late, or I want to be early for. Why don’t they make more books that actually fit in a pocket?

If things are so dire in traditional book publishing, where is the collaboration between publisher and clothier? Here’s a marketing idea: a garment (coats, cargo pants, etc.) that come with a lifestyle-oriented book in a pocket dedicated to just that. That, to my mind, is more interesting than a writer’s idea of t-shirt design. Has anyone actually seen someone walking down Robson Street in those Doug Coupland-inspired vomitorium scrubs Roots is putting out?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Everything a little slower today, a little quieter, a little drier. Yesterday was like that too, and the day before that. But not the day before that.

It is always like this around now, the mornings a little cooler, the sun setting a little faster. I like it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Found while cleaning my study: a receipt dated 1993 from Lisa Robertson’s Proprioception Books. Written on the back, in my handwriting:

I believe that when we die we go to an art gallery. Those who were “good” are the patrons, those who were “bad”, the art.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A stanza that appears near the end of Vancouver writer Deanna Ferguson's "Taking Theory Home", from her book The Relative Minor (Tsunami Editions, 1993):

Architectural mess how many centuries mixed
in improper context.
Self-definition is to cope
with despotic edicts -- not
feeling so well
Maybe it's something you read.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The opening stanza of a bpNichol poem, entitled "1335 Comox Avenue". Given the sentiment and the title, I assume it is an earlier work, written in his birthplace, Vancouver.

in fall
we lose ourselves
in new rooms, gaze
from windows grown old
in that season

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Monday, August 16, 2010

On Page 15, Salter writes:

"I'm strangely devout, I find myself defending the meager life of provinces as if it were something special. It's not like the life of Paris, I say, which is exactly like being on some great ocean liner. It's in the little towns that one discovers a country, in the kind of knowledge that comes from small days and nights."

Flaubert was aware of the rural-urban relationship. In Madame Bovary (first serialized in 1856) we see the influence of bourgeois Parisian culture on small town life. Same too with Wilhelm Busch's Max and Moritz (1865), which is as much the story of a town influenced by urban middle class values (on the eve of German confederation) as the misadventures of two delinquent kids. But it is in Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881) that we have the arrival of the urban bourgeois sensibility in human form.

The New Directions Press translation of Bouvard et Pecuchet is one of my favorite books, one I read every couple of years. It is like that for me and books: for every new title I read, I return to at least one of my favorites, books like Stein's Tender Buttons (1914), Nicolson's Some People (1926), Salter's A Sport and a Pastime (1967), Highsmith's A Dog's Ransom (1972), Chatwin's In Patagonia (1977), Didion's The White Album (1979)...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Since (re)opening Salter's book I have once again followed his narrator to Autun, where the following day he awakes at the same time I did on the morning of August 11th.

Salter writes:

"I awake before dawn, 0545, the bells striking three times, far off and then a moment later very near. The most devout moments of my life have been spent in bed listening to those bells. They flood over me, drawing me out of myself. I know where I am suddenly: part of this town and happy."

Replace bells with the whoosh of ravens wings and the childlike shrieks of eagles, and his narrator would have heard what I heard the morning I left Haida Gwaii.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Absence makes the office grow messier.

Why is it that every time I return from a trip my desk looks like someone attacked it with a leaf-blower?

I have spent the past two days cleaning, finding things I have been looking for since my last return, as well as things I never knew existed. Postcards of places I had forgotten visiting, writings I had started but never finished.

Last night’s find was a pair of desiccated crab apples I picked while at a 2006 Paris writers festival. Holding them in my hand brought back more than just their picking.

That night I had been scheduled to read with James Salter. Knowing this, I brought with me my Bantam edition of A Sport and a Pastime (1967), hoping that he might sign it. And he did! Only I never looked at what he wrote. Pulling the book from the shelf, I opened it to the page most authors write on.

"Michael --

See you again,

James Salter

Friday, August 13, 2010


Thursday, August 12, 2010

My last night on Haida Gwaii ended at 5:45AM, when I awoke from a dream I had complete control over, scaring myself with what I, a dreamer, am capable of.

At breakfast a guest offered to drive me to the airport. While waiting for him outside I unpacked my ukulele and performed an impromptu concert for the couples I had dined with the night before. A nice way to say goodbye.

On the flight to Haida Gwaii I sat on the west side of the plane, and saw nothing. But yesterday, because I sat on the east side, and because the sky was cloudless, I saw inlets, snowcapped ridges, granite faces, cirques, turquoise lakes, trees, logging roads, power lines, winding rivers, oxbows, beaches…

And now I am home, surrounded by smog and hot weather, my tomatoes huge, my grapes a week away. Nothing died in the garden, nor was anything stolen.

After twelve days on Haida Gwaii I see my garden differently, thankful for the soil, so rich and plentiful, and as always for what is possible. Maybe next time I visit I will do so at the other end of the year, see how dark it gets.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Copper Beech House Inn is a rustic five-suite bed and breakfast situated at the entrance of the government dock on the Delkatla Slough. If I had to guess I would say the house was built in the 1930s.

Until recently, the CBHI was owned and operated by David Phillips, a man of Falstaffian proportions who came to the islands in 1971 and, for many years, acted as its cook, gardener, tour-guide and mystic.

While Susan Musgrave is the new proprietor, my host for the past three days has been her 21-year-old daughter Sophie Reid, a no-bullshit bottle blonde with a cough that sounds like a car starting. If David Phillips is Shakespearean, Sophie’s referent is Gus Van Sant.

“I grew up here,” she says between coughs, “so I know a lot of people my age.” I listen as Sophie tells me Twitter-quick tales of courage, pride, sadness and despair, stories I would share, if I had her talent.

Upon returning to Masset my hope was to visit Rose Spit, Tow Hill and Sarah Davidson’s longhouse. But because of poor weather, and because we peeked at Sarah’s yesterday, I decided to moor myself at Mile Zero and watch what came ashore.

The bartender, Adeena, was wearing some very nice bracelets made by fellow Eagle Chris Rush, which she took off and showed me. Later, a bush pilot emerged from the “chicken cage” (smoking area) and insisted, quite seriously, that Adeena cut him off “after the next one.” Following that, one of Adeena’s (off duty) co-workers strode in and purchased twenty dollars in pull-tabs, made six bucks, then reinvested her “winnings” with the inevitable result.

Near the end of my pint, a guy my age sidled up with a paddle. I bought him a beer and we chatted. Turns out he is Guujaaw’s cousin, Wayne Edenshaw, and he learned to make paddles in Vancouver while his cousin was working on Bill Reid’s Raven and the First Men. He showed me why his paddle is distinct and said he was selling it for $100. Because it was beautiful, and because I had $100, I bought it.

As I made my way back to the Inn I ran into Sophie. I asked if she had an espresso maker, and she suggested we go to The Grounds Cafe instead. Along the way I learned more about Sophie’s life, a conversation that had us taking the beach route home, where hebe and pampas grew wild above huge patches of sea asparagus. Sophie found an agate and gave it to me.

Sophie’s boyfriend Corey waved to us from the dock. Sophie called out, “Let’s put on a dinner tonight!” and Corey called back, “I’ve already taken the salmon out!”

Now in dinner mode, Sophie gave me a bucket and asked that I fill it with thimble berries. After that, I was sent to the beach for sea asparagus. Thirty-five dollars for dinner -- and you get to pick half of it yourself.

The house was almost full, which meant seven at dinner. Two elderly couples, one from Vancouver (by way of England and Argentina), the other from northwestern France. We started with crab, then coho, followed by ice cream and berries. It was the perfect evening, with Sophie and Corey providing the fuel – a high-octane mix of Drugstore Cowboy and I Love Lucy. I cannot recommend this place highly enough.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My wettest day yet as Adele, her daughters and I left Charlotte for Masset, where I will finish my trip at Susan Musgrave’s Copper Beech Inn.

I am sad to leave Charlotte. I will miss my morning walk to Queen B’s, the friendly staff and the chitchat on the covered deck. I will also miss Adele and her family, who have been so kind to me. But there will be other visits

Our drive was dominated by the usual topics, one of which was Abraham Rogatnick, the UBC architect who passed away last year after a long and hidden illness. Abe, Adele and Ian Thom wrote the B.C. Binning book, while for me Abe was a relentless source of information on Vancouver art in the 50s and 60s.

Adele and I also spoke of the islands, a more involved conversation that will find its way into an essay I am preparing. I am sure Doris Shadbolt and Bill Reid will figure into this essay, as will linguist-translator John Enrico and poet-typographer Robert Bringhurst.

After checking-in we drove around the Massets, where I saw the oddest structures: repurposed military housing (tall and stout, in contrast to Haida architecture, which is long and low); vinyl-sided nightmares with out-of-scale bay windows and perilously high porches; homes whose entrances do not face the street. Clearly both towns are without a building code.

Lunch at a greasy spoon then, as the rain let up, goodbye to my friends from Charlotte.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Charlotte's Brian Eccles lives on a bluff overlooking the waters that separate Graham Island from Moresby. A retired engineer, he has been a resident of Haida Gwaii for thirty-five years.

His is a modest house, made of wood and painted brown. To the right is a Japanese garden introduced by a whalebone archway in the shape of the Pi symbol. At centre, a circulating pond filled with water lilies and koi. Surrounding the pond, pines, maples, bamboos, a hearty euphorbia and a gunera. There are some well-placed flowers here and there (including the ubiquitous crocosmia), though many died during the winter of 2008.

Retirement has allowed Brian more time in his studio, where he works in clay and silver. Although self-taught, his ceramics show a range of production interests, from teapots and bowls to more playful items and object d’art, in a variety of glazes. A tile grid decorated with carbonized bamboo leaves impresses.

However it is his silver work that shines; in particular, a series cast from shells, crab claws, cedar leaves and fish bones -- that which he has come in contact with since arriving all those years ago. I am most taken with the salmon vertebrae; the work is remarkable, given the delicacy of the source. I ask to purchase one, and he gives it to me. Then he shows me a pair of earrings cast from halibat otolith. They are gorgeous. For these he takes money.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

No visits yesterday, no explorations. A do-nothing day, like that ones I have at home.

A small breakfast before setting out on foot down Adele and Jamie’s driveway, across 2nd to the 30-foot diagonal slash that leads to the hospital parking lot. From there, another short walk to Highway 16, which is so sleepy I cross without looking.

Once across I take a path that leads to Queen B’s, where I drink coffee on her covered deck and chat with whoever is feeling social, pausing on occasion to take notes, most of them concerned with how much I like it here. Thirty feet below that, the harbour, filled with gillnetters, trollers; the other half pleasure craft.

I thought about returning to Adele and Jamie's, to pull a few more weeds, but thought otherwise. Adele mentioned she had purchased an 8-pound FOB coho at the market, and would I like to join them for dinner? Not wanting to show up empty handed I walked to the government liquor store, only to find it closed for lunch. Waiting with me were members of Kinnie Starr’s band, so more chat.

Today I will visit the Japanese garden of Brian Eccles, around the corner from where I am staying. Brian was at the Howler’s reading, but I have not seen him since.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The weather has turned. Two nights ago, for the first time in ten days, rain. Good for the garden, but not so good for walking up hills in flip-flops.

My latest expedition took me to the hillside home of Guujaaw and Marcie. Guujaaw (“drum” in Haida) was born in Masset, a descendent of the Gakyaals Kiiqawaay Skedans Ravens. For many years Guujaaw had a studio practice, but now, as he puts it, he spends “less time on art and more time on politics.” Since 2000 he has served as President of the Haida Nation. Marcie is originally from Delta. The garden is mostly her doing.

I say “mostly” because Guujaaw does not like non-native flowers and would prefer that they not be planted on Haida land. But because he is a negotiator, a compromise was reached: Marcie can grow nasturtium, lobelia and cosmos, but in pots, like the ones on the steps outside their longhouse-inspired home.

Marcie and Guujaaw’s garden is nowhere near the undertaking of Benita’s or Marlene’s. What it does have is a more apparent relationship between flora and fauna. Cupping the south side of their deer-proofed vegetable patch is a chicken (or “sqaw”) run. When I asked Marcie where she keeps her compost, she pointed to the chickens. “They get the scraps, we get the manure.”

The point was brought home later when Marcie absently picked a caterpillar from a lettuce leaf and fed it to a chicken.

Our next stop was The Edge of the World Festival at Tlell. En route, Adele, who has been known to describe Tlell as “less a town than a state of mind,” took me to where most Tlellians live: a Chelsea-of-the-forest filled with galleries, open studios and homesteads, many of which were built by 1960s counter-culturalists.

One such couple is Barb and Noel, owners of a spread on Richardson Road. Though both spend a sizeable amount of time tending their garden beds and chickens, Barb has becoming increasingly active in Sitka Studio Art and Books, while Noel seems happiest at the centre of a redecorated hollow tree, where we jammed (me on guitar, he on harmonica) before making our way to The Edge of the World.

Fortunately we were not so late as to miss the blessing by the Haida Spirit Dance Group. Following that, I purchased some of the islands’ wares (berettes made from recycled clothing, a packet of polished shells and a hackey sack), then a big bag of popcorn to nibble on while I watched Wendy Watts, Quebec’s FM Hi LOW and Honey Brown, who, at their most relaxed, sounded a lot like the Allman Brothers Band at their drug-addled best. Although I would have liked to stay for my old friend Kinnie Starr (she supplied music to a lyric from my book Hard Core Logo, which she then performed on the film version’s “tribute record”), Adele, her family and I were fading.

Our return to Charlotte took place at dusk. Along the way I counted twenty deer. Like Adele and her kids, the deer consisted mostly of moms and teenaged daughters.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Yesterday I dined and danced at the Skidegate home of Roberta, whose Haida name implores her to feed visitors and, as a bonus, share with them the ways of her people. Not every night, but only when interest is sufficient. Joining me was a retired Steveston principal, her teenage son (an archaeology student) and an elderly Scottish-born couple from Vancouver.

Upon arrival we were met by Cohen (15), son of Juanita Richardson, nephew of Miles. Cohen, who is named after the writer-musician Leonard Cohen, ably performed the role of maitre ‘d, emcee, drummer, singer and storyteller. Assisting him was Taylor (11), a native of Cumberland.

After taking our seats Roberta introduced herself, then handed things over to Cohen, who sang and drummed a lovely song before serving us an appetizer plate of dried salmon, breaded scallop and herring roe on seaweed. Following that, a crab salad, supplemented by sea asparagus and cucumber. Following that, the main course: cod soufflé, potatoes, rice, fresh herring roe, cooked carrots and celery, and oolichan. For dessert a berry crumble.

Once stuffed, we were led outside where Cohen sang and drummed a song written by Vern Williams Jr. called “Greeting of the Day”. A couple more songs (one of which featured Taylor's feather dance) before the “Lyell Island Song”, which became an anthem during the protests that led to the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park, an initiative Cohen’s uncle, Miles, was instrumental in.

The evening ended with a dance lesson, one that had me, in my flip-flops, threatening to recreate the accident at Balancing Rock.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A friend of Adele’s eldest returned yesterday to Vancouver from Sandspit on Moresby Island. To get there, one takes a twenty-minute ferry from Skidegate, followed by a 10 km drive to the airport, also the centre of town.

Because I was curious about this former Cold War military site, I asked if I could tag along.

Unlike many B.C. Ferries passages, where the islands are dotted with houses, I did not see a single settlement. Usually there is a house or two -- and if not a house, then a pier leading up to one. Not so on this trip. Nothing but water, rocks, trees and sky.

From Alliford Bay we are thrust into a gauntlet of poplar and fir. A couple turns later and we are hit with a lightning quick picture of the beach. Although Adele admires my curiosity, I can tell she is worried I am wasting my time.

With a single km to go the spit is visible. To our right, the forty-odd houses, parts shops and fishing lodges leading up to it.

By the time we pass tile maker Sid Dickens’s cedar Lego Xanadu, I can see the homes of airport employees, built in the 40's style. But something else catches my eye: a giant steel salmon at the water’s edge.

The sculpture, I later find out from the maquette at the airport, is called “The Spirit of Sandspit”. However, there is nothing of the formline in this representation, nor anywhere else in town. Judging from “The Spirit of Sandspit”, you might think the Haida never existed.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Skidegate’s Kaay Llnagaay, also known as The Haida Heritage Centre, is a series of longhouses nestled together like the village it is based on, one you move through sideways, passing classrooms, interpretive displays, audio-visual stations, pole carving and vitrines.

Museum employee Walker Brown, a young free-thinking Haida whose research interests include the relationship of myths to scientific phenomenon, told me of his current projects, one of which includes the art of Pat McGuire, a local badboy who took coastal motifs to pyschedelic ends.

Following the museum, a short drive east to Marlene and Rainer Specht’s spectacular alpine garden. If Benita Sanders has perfected heather, Marlene is equally fluent in rhododendron. Every year she takes her plantings higher and higher up the mountain.

Finished the day at Fran Fowler’s, where, after touring her grounds, I joined Fran, Bonita and Borge, Adrianne and Sergio (artists from Atlanta, Georgia and Chile, respectively; now residents of New York’s Hudson Valley) and Diana Ellis (daughter of legendary Northwest Coast book expert Bill Ellis) inside for dinner. A delicious meal that included halibut soufflé, broccoli and celery, rice, homemade bread and a salad that had started the day in the beds outside her door.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The sun continues to shine here at Charlotte, as I awoke yesterday to a flood of it.

Although hobbled by my accident (on the path to Balancing Rock, where I lost my balance and cut my toe), I felt well enough to attempt the mile walk to Benita Sander’s seaside garden. Then Adele mentioned she was going to the market, and would I like a lift?

A pretty good way to gauge one’s infirmity, I thought. Am I well enough to turn down a ride? (No, I was not.)

Benita Sanders is a long tall elegant woman with a trace English accent and a remarkable half-acre garden, much of it built from the shale up. The garden is in three distinct sections. A free-standing shed and greenhouse structure to the east, filled with grapes and tomatoes. Behind the house, on the north side, a walled-in vegetable garden, with an apple tree at centre. Then, curling west to south, a rock-and-path affair with, among other plantings, at least twenty different heathers and a monumental hebe.

The tour, which included a walk through her meticulously built, light-friendly house, took an hour, after which I purchased further provisions and returned to Adele’s to soak my toe.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Another sunny day as we made our way to the Tlell Fall Fair – the “earliest fall fair in British Columbia.” The stage was set, the PA warm as we entered the quarter-mile circle of booths.

At 10:45AM the emcee handed the microphone to Adele and, after a brief but thoughtful introduction, she passed it on to me.

My text was a 3500 word meditation on gardens, time and Northwest Coast art. Because it was Sunday, and because the benches looked like church pews, it occurred to me that those arriving mid-stream might think I was delivering a sermon. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The piece was well-received, and because of it I was able to meet Benita Sanders, one of Haida Gwaii’s gardening legends, whose garden I will visit today.

Here is the piece I read at Tlell:


What is my garden? Is it me? A reflection of me? Or is it, like the various computers I plug myself into – my car, my phone, my camera, my laptop – an extension of me? Can a reflection be an extension, or is it like Magritte’s painting Ceci ne pas une pipe (1928): not a pipe but a painting of a pipe? Can it be all of the above, like Joseph Kosuth’s installation Chair and Three Chairs (1965) is a chair, a photo of a chair and an enlarged dictionary definition of a chair? Questions like these, like the many questions I ask myself when starting something new, fertilize my writing. Today I have decided to write about my garden.

My garden takes place within a 25-by-150 foot lot on the east end of Vancouver. In the middle of the lot is a 100-year-old Edwardian house, and at the northeast corner, by the alley, a 12-by-16 foot garage. The house and garage take up two-thirds of the property. Two years ago the City of Vancouver granted my neighbours and I the opportunity to demolish our garages and replace them with infill housing, but to do so, in my case, would have meant the loss of a grape vine, which, along with the apple tree beside it, the laurel hedge to the west, the stumpy fir out front and the ever-shrinking lawn, are the only living flora to have proceeded me.

In the sixteen years I have lived at my address, I have spent on average about two-thirds of each year involved in some form of gardening -- planting, pruning, moving things around (or removing them altogether), constructing paths, fences, arbors, vignettes. I am 47 years old, and these sixteen years account for a third of my life -- the same ratio of gardens to buildings, but also the same ratio of time spent in bed, asleep. Ratios like these are important to me. A third, two-thirds. I have no idea why that is, though I intend to spend the last third of my life finding out.

What is a garden? According to that hothouse of information known as Wikipedia, a garden is “a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. The most common form today is known as the residential garden.” Like Kosuth’s definition of a chair, this describes my garden. So let’s look at the word itself.

Garden is derived from the Middle English gardin, similar to the French word jardin, or the High German word gart. In all cases, the etymology refers to “enclosure.” In discovering this, what immediately came to mind was a book I am reading in advance of my trip to Haida Gwaii: Doris Shadbolt’s 1986 monograph on the artist Bill Reid. In a chapter entitled “Looking Backwards”, Shabolt begins her discussion of Northwest Coast art with the cave paintings at Lascaux, in southwestern France. The Lascaux paintings are of animals associated with the hunt, rendered in colours and forms western art historians would refer to as realistic, or at their most adventurous, expressionistic. In contrast to these cave paintings, Shadbolt refers to “the qualities of containment, confinement, enclosure, stability” found in the art of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wakw people, whose work, she goes on to say, is “so formalized as to appear to have been based on a set of rules and conventions formulated in some unknown past and therefore serving as a collective model from which surface changes could be made while leaving the inner form matrix intact.” This formalization is distinct from the “spontaneous, intuitive or emotive mind, which is more apt to express itself in open movement or gesture,” such as the paintings at Lascaux.

Another coincidence with respect to enclosure and containment took place last night, at a new Japanese restaurant not far from my home. Eager to please, I consented to the server’s suggestion that I order the bento box. Of course what was presented to me was a meal enclosed and contained in compartments. Is the word bento in any way related to the Japanese word for garden? No. Bento originated in 12th century China, the Southern Song Dynasty slang term biandang, meaning “convenient” or “convenience.” Not until Japan’s post-clan Meiji Period (1868-1912), with the introduction of ekiben, or “train station bento”, and the more modern Taisho Period (1912-1926), did the aluminum bento box become ubiquitous among Japan’s wealthier residents.

Looking out my window, as I often do while writing, I notice how the plots we inhabit, with their careful placement of houses and garages, the lawns, paths and flower beds we arrange within them, this tendency towards right angle divisions and, as a result, the squareness in which we organize our lives, and the convenience those squares afford us, are not unlike the bento box. Although the artists and architects of the Northwest Coast have their own right angle geometries – from long house walls to cedar bentwood boxes – the figure that decorates everything, like the paintings that decorate an Attic vase, begins with the curvilinear formline. This formline, once enacted, finds its greatest expression in the ovoid, which, along with the geodesic (from the paintings of B.C. Binning to the domes of Haida Gwaii to the huge silver ball that is Vancouver’s Science World), are our province’s most enduring motifs.


My first foray into gardening came at my mother’s insistence. I was seven at the time, and because I had the gall to ask what an allowance was, I was not given a quarter (like the other kids got) but a list of things to do, one of which was weeding.

What is weeding? I asked.

Weeding is a chore, like making your bed or shoveling snow…

Yes, but what is it? What exactly do I have to do?

That was my introduction to gardening: a chore, something to be done – in order to get my quarter.

This is a weed, said my mother, reaching for what I thought to be a beautiful yellow flower.

But it has a flower on it.

A flower I don’t like, said my mother, ripping it from the earth. Here’s another flower I don’t like – the California poppy.

(My father’s mother, whom my mother struggled with emotionally, lived in Los Angeles -- California.)

A few more extractions and she stepped back, handing me her gloves. Here, pull out anything that looks like those, she said, pointing to the weed pile. But make sure you get the roots otherwise they’ll grow back.

I did poorly -- I could not distinguish between a weed and a not-a-weed. Perhaps if my mother had taught me what a not-a-weed was I might have fared better. But alas, like much of my childhood, the lesson was figure-ground -- not the form that fills a space but the absence of the form that defines that form. In that respect, you might say that I came to gardening in reverse.

A couple years ago, while looking through a box of family photos, I happened upon a colour Polaroid of the garden bed, taken from the upstairs bathroom window. That it must have been taken while standing atop the toilet told me it was an image my mother sought out, not something glanced at and admired while brushing ones teeth. In this instance, six tall rosebushes interspersed with azalea and ringed with purple primula. I had seen the photo before, but what caught my eye this time was the garden’s shape: not a square patch beside the garage but something curvy, like those single-cell organisms we looked at in science class. I mentioned this to my mother and she said the bed was less her design than a response to what could not be altered: the cement walk that came up the side of the house and ended in a semi-circle at the entrance to our backyard, and the impenetrable root ball left behind by a recently removed cedar. But if the bed looked like anything, she suggested, it might have been a kidney, because your father had kidney stones, and don’t you remember him screaming? Looking at the photo today (now tacked above my desk), the bed looks as much like the ovoids that describe Thunderbird, Eagle, Whale and Raven as the kidneys that beat up my dad.

In her book, Shadbolt continually reminds us of a time when the spirit world and the natural world were one – interchanging, transforming, returning. When talking about the brightly decorated bentwood boxes, we are told of the relationship of the decoration to the object that carries it: how “the animal-creature referred to and represented is also a container; it is also the skin, another form of container welded to and become that which is the box.” The more I garden, the more aware I am of the interrelationship of elements, how decay and growth are linked through the ongoing flow of energy. And in thinking of these forces as one, together, I imagine what that might look like -- how the ovoid, like the cells that comprise all living things, figures into that form.


My second foray into gardening came after a serious car accident. Though my accident was nowhere near the cellular malfunction I experienced three years later, when I was diagnosed with cancer, it brought me closer to the earth on which I had, until then, merely walked, returning me to Victoria where I had started my university schooling and was eager to resume, hopeful that I might find a place with an arable strip of land on which to till, seed and grow my way back to good health. And I did -- a large bachelorized mansion in Fairfield, three blocks from the ocean.

The strip was a six-by-eighteen-foot lie on the south side of the house, which the owner had been using as a parking spot for a truck he had long since given up on. Getting the truck out took some doing, but once it was gone, he told me how thankful he was, how its restoration, which for years had been a dream of his, had become little more than a monument to sloth. It was for this reason that he gave me fifty dollars towards the garden. I took the money and spent it first on a remediation kit, then on the soil I would need to replace that which the truck’s fluids had compromised.

I remember my first stab of the shovel, the grass so hard I thought the earth below it was concrete. I tried again, a little harder this time, but to similar effect. A neighbour offered her pick ax, and that helped. But with each blow I weighed the earth’s resistance against my not-yet-mended bones, knowing for the first time that what I thought possible was not what my body wanted. To know this at seventy is one thing, but at twenty-one? I felt less like a gardener than a gravedigger.

After an hour, my neighbour, who was easily seventy, wandered over with a glass of lemonade and asked if I needed a break. Deaf with pride, I brought the pick down even harder, just missing my foot. Alright, she said firmly, grabbing the handle, if you want to be like that, gimme my pick before you get hurt. But it was too late. My ego was crushed. I had made a fool of myself in the presence of someone who seemed to know exactly what I was going through. Why I could not respond to her generous suggestion was an early lesson in adult humility. Of which, of course, there were many more.

Her name was Connie and she had lived in Victoria since she and her husband came west from Saskatchewan, to retire. Like many career schoolteachers, he died within the first five years of his pension, leaving Connie a widow for the next five. I grew up on a farm, she said. We had cattle, but I spent most of my time in our mother’s garden, which was a hundred times bigger than your little plot. Not to brag, but I was a girl amongst five brothers and did all the work myself. First thing you learn about garden work is pace. You learn about yourself that way – your mind and your body in relation to the land, and everything that walks upon it.

Not exactly what she said, but that was the gist. Connie, who had started in her mother’s garden long before I first weeded mine, grew with the land and the sun and the rain. And it was through her mother’s garden that she came to understand the animals that fed upon it, and those that fed upon them. Cycles, she kept saying. Cycles and rhythms. It’s like music, and you have your instrument. Only in my case, it was a shovel! When the growing season’s over, you’re inside, making preserves. And once that’s done, you’re getting your seeds ready for spring, seeds you start indoors, in the dark. Cycles and rhythms. By the time I was eighteen and ready to leave, I thought I had died. Life is a series of life-and-death cycles, of which, by last count, I’ve had four.

Connie supervised my second day from her stoop, allowing me no more than twenty strikes before calling me over to ask what I wanted to plant, and where. If you break this up, it won’t be so difficult. Look what you’ve done so far – forty strikes and you’ve already cracked the surface. The earth is softer now; you can use your shovel. By day’s end I had dug down a foot and had another foot to go before I could add the new soil, a mixture Connie devised using sand, topsoil and mushroom manure, as well as ample scoops from her compost. As promised, my landlord took away the old soil, and by the end of the week I had made my bed.

Had the garden ended there, I would have been happy. It did not matter what I planted; what mattered more than anything was the passage -- from walking up at dusk, at Connie’s suggestion, to washing off the dirt at the end of the day, and enjoying it. Just before adding the new soil Connie pointed to the old pile. What do you see? I shrugged. No, look at it. Really look at it. I did, and still I saw nothing -- nothing but a pile of old soil. Okay, she said finally, think about what you didn’t see when were digging. I looked at the hole then back at the pile. I probably did this twice. Worms? I said cautiously. Life? I will never forget Connie’s smile.


So, if my first foray into gardening came when I was seven, and my second at twenty-one, my third occurred at roughly the same interval, fourteen years later, at the age of thirty-five. I had been three years at my current address, but until then had done little more than mow the lawn, the interior renovation having taken up most of my time. Then in late-March I found myself in the backyard, sorting through the wreckage.

I was making my way through a pile of lathe, one that had weathered three snowfalls and had stood like a snowman where a scarecrow would have stood in July, when I pushed aside a particularly large section and saw not the green grass below but a whorl of whites and yellows: new skin under an old scab. I thought it appropriate -- how the lawn, like our skin, is an organ that keeps other organs contained, confined, enclosed and stable. It was then that I saw the lawn as more than the absence of flowers and shrubs – I saw it as a monochrome that for some is never green enough. And for those who keep their lawns that way, so green and so pure, are they the same people who appreciate the black paintings of Kazmir Malevich, the blue paintings of Yves Klein or the white paintings of Robert Ryman? Is it more than that? Less? Is the lawn an expression of the homeowner’s pride in not having to work the land he lives on, and extension of himself, the way his interior walls, decorated with prints by Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, provide a similar function? Or for those whose lawns are populated with garden gnomes, participants in some occult narrative, what are the chances that their walls are covered in monochrome paintings? One-third? Two-thirds? What is a lawn?

The composition of my lawn had less to do with grass than dandelion and buttercup. But rather than restore it, I chose to reduce it. My first attempt began on paper: a bed extending from the laurel hedge, in two loopy curves, not unlike my mother’s. However, as I cut my way in, piling the sod behind me like my mother did her weeds (and I did later, with all that rotten soil), I found the hedge to be so inundated with morning glory that before I could plant anything, I had to remove it, a decision that had me no longer working on my bed but on the other axis, going from one end of the hedge to the other, extracting these great white root balls, each root capable of breaking into two and doubling the likelihood of a new root system. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari found in the rhizome a metaphor to counter the destructive consequences of binary thinking -- yet when it comes to gardening, the rhizomatic root is the most destructive kind there is.

It took three summers to rid myself of the morning glory. By then, the garden had taken shape. Where my coming and going had cut a pattern from the back door to the alley, I inserted a stone path. These were not store-bought pavers but bricks and rocks I had collected here and there, from rivers and highway shoulders to demolished schoolhouses and what I found while digging. More than anything I planted in those three years, more than the wild geranium and crocosmia from a deceased friend’s yard; the moneywort, hebe and dwarf lilac vignette I made at the southern edge of the grape arbor; and the potted azaleas I dote on like children, the path is most important. Every time I look at it, especially from my study window, but also from my kitchen window, where it looks completely different, and even below that, under the porch where I keep my garden tools, I think of how I played with those bricks and rocks, turning them this way and that, lining them up one way, then another, squinting, arranging them in the earth only to wake up at three in the morning and, like the morning glory, rip them out and start again.

The path means many things to me. Mostly it is a poem that functions as an index, allowing me to understand the logic of my floral plantings. Though sometimes, especially as the sun moves lower and lower across the sky, it is my spine, the one I broke, the one that led me into gardening -- the one that tells when it is just about to rain. Sometimes all I have to do is think about my path...

I could go on about my garden, breaking it down into elements, configurations, dimensions (the most important being time), but that would take ages, perhaps as long as it takes to write a novel. Much of this writing has concerned itself with parallels, the garden in relation to time, the body, to Northwest Coast art, and this is not a coincidence, because I would not have written this essay had I not agreed to come here. I think it might be possible to write about a garden and have it relate to anything, in the way everything relates, in some form, to the ebb and flow of life. Something else: through this process I have learned that writing about my garden is nowhere near as enjoyable as walking through it with another human being, allowing the garden, not me, to initiate the conversation, extend it, allow for its reflection, an order I had not thought about until just this very moment.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A slow day yesterday. Provisions at the local supermarket, a coffee at Queen B’s and an impromptu visit with Allan Cowan, retired Federal Fisheries biologist, whom I saw while climbing Alder Street, a very steep grade.

Cowan was working the eastern slope of his spacious 2nd Avenue lot, where he had created a tiered garden. When asked why he had chosen such a difficult piece of land, he gave me an equally difficult answer, much of which I got down, in words and pictures, for a later piece.

My last outing was to Barry’s for a pig roast, up another steep grade, though this one was made of gravel. To our left, a pig sty, and still further, a newly erected barn, on the other side of which was “No Name”, the other pigs’ brother, a skewer driven through him.

The crowd at Barry’s was large, and many of the attendees brought their chairs. These are durable structures made of aluminum and nylon, with drink holders built into the arms.