Along the Grindstone: Some Ontario Poems

Grindstone Creek at Hidden Valley Park

In January 1968 I took up my professional occupation as a Physical Limnologist (landlocked oceanographer) at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, a newly-formed Government of Canada research institute in Burlington, Ontario. Burlington, located north and east of Hamilton, along the north shore of Lake Ontario, was at that time in transition from a small market town serving a surrounding agricultural community, to an outlying satellite of Toronto. By October Penny and I had acquired a station wagon, a daschund puppy, our first child, Lyse, and a small house on a tree-lined street with a half-acre lot of fertile sandy loam adjacent to a large field. This houe would be our home for the next 31 years.

The Niagara Escarpment with its sporadic outcrops of limestone rock lay a mile to the north. There were parcels of good arable land above the escarpment, but where the impermeable limestone lay near the surface, the land was poorly drained. Below the escarpment and close to Lake Ontario the soils were deep and fertile and much of the land around Burlington was given over to family-operated market gardens, selling produce locally as well as supplying markets along the shore of Lake Ontario between Oshawa and St. Catherines. A kilometer north of our home lay the valley of Grindstone Creek. Grindstone Creek drained land to the north above the Escarpment, plunged over the Escarpment itself in a handsome waterfall and discharged into Hamilton Harbour/Lake Ontario. The Village of Waterdown was established above the escarpment where Grindstone Creek ran fast towards the falls, a good site for water-powered mills. Below the falls, the Grindstone flowed through a kilometer of no-mans’s land, narrow, tangled with vines and other well-watered growth emerging to daylight in a small, confined subdivision adjacent to the major east-west railway line and Higway 403 to Hamilton, Brantford and and beyond. South of the highway and railway, the steep sided creek valley was given over to a largely undeveloped public park where neighbourhood childen including ours patrolled unsupervised like chimpanzees in clothes. We came to know this area intimately.

On the west side of the Grindstone Creek valley Lemoville Road followed the valley’s rim north There were several small market-garden farms on the west side of the road, all of which had been owned at one time by members of the Lemon family. The largest farm was at the north end of the road. It was owned by Archie Lemon and his wife Mrytle. The second farm downhill had been owned by Archie’s brother Murray (now deceased) and his spouse Pearl. I do not know the history but I suspect that the other two farms along the road had been owned by brothers or sisters of Archie and Murray. That would be consistent with what I learned about their autocratic father. Pearl became a good friend and we partnered with her in the restoration of her apple trees, the production of strawberries and sweet corn. Archie & Myrtle became persons of interest and the subjects of a series unpublished poems (Up at Archie’s) about a fading local agriculture and the redevelopment of formerly productive land. Some of these poems are posted here.

The late 60’s and early 70’s were the years of the “back to the land” movement and we were drawn to its striving for regional independence even as it was being overwhelmed by the commercial logic of long supply chains and industrial food producton. As an environmental scientist (long retired) I came to believe in the validity ( even necessity ) of a bioregional approach to food production and to human cultures in general. Thus we became students and supporters of the small scale local agriculture in our neighbourhood,an agrculture that once supplied a major city like Toronto, even as those traditions faded away.

Looking back on the Ontario years when we were in our youthful primes I am amazed at the energies we possessed and the projects we took on. One of mine was learning to draw and paint through evening classes at the Dundas Valley School of Art. Needing a space where I could lay out my paints and work free of household distractions, I rented an unused portion of Pearl Lemon’s barn, closed it off and added an oil heater. Scenes from the Grindstone Creek valley became favourite subjects. In the 70’s and 80’s I produced little poetry but many drawings and paintings, some of which are reproduced here.

Grindstone Creek in winter

Along the Grindstone

If you start at the concrete silos
Near the sewage treatment plant,
Step over the bank by the culvert
And drop down through the screen of sumacs,
You’ll hear the creek below you.
The going isn’t easy;
There’s deadfalls, clay sidehills, and tangle,
And always gravity’s sharp pull.
Trees let you walk among them,
Indifferent to all except the earth’s slow turn,
Watching the light, cloud, rain, wind and snow
Come and go
Across the valley’s narrow rim.

Here in the gorge, the creek clings with tiny, silver claws,
Holds back against relentless pull.
Resisting all this time has led to wreckage;
Pulling at escarpment’s rim has brought down huge blocks
Which, despite their weight
have offered only fragile foothold,
Focussing the struggle in a new place but with the same old results.
Sometimes you can see where the creek has plugged the gaps
With whatever came to hand.
Jammed among the slabs and boulders,
Logs and brush, old timbers, tires,
And once the rusting carcass of a car.

Further on it seems the water wearies;
There is no longer the purchase on broken rocks.
Hawthorns and willows take advantage of the lull,
They’re grabby, want all the room,
Clutch at strangers with thorny arms.
Wet clay underfoot and piles of matted twigs
Show where the creek has tried to snatch things back.
On the high ground, aloof from this brawling,
Maple, oak and beech have slowly gathered
On the valley sides, crowding to the skyline.
Among them, if you know where to look,
You can see Archie’s house and barn
Peering over the edge and none too sure of the footing.
Down here in the tangle, always the noise,
muttering at the edge of comprehension,
Water regretful of its turbulent descent,
Clawing earth down to stand higher.

(October 1982; revised October 2005)

October afternoon

October Afternoon

The gold October sun,
Reverberating in the scattered yellows of late leaves,
Has become more personal and less blinding.
Under his wistful gaze,
The compass of our vision narrows,
The land contours firmly on old bones.
Down among the roots,
The earth pulls nearer to its centre.
Now I feel the shapes and folds of gullies,
Whisper the creeks which way to run,
Draw breath and see the cool air
Flow among the trees to meet me.

(October 1978; revised October 2005)

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Putting the Strawberries to Bed

Cool east wind;
year’s last month brings first snow.
Softly, the bare apple twigs
gather new blooms.

On the strawberries
we have laid a cover of fresh yellow straw.
It blazes like a gold road to nowhere.

(December, 1979)

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October Haiku

White birch, morning sun,
Yellow leaves in grass.
Ahead are desk and papers.

(October, 1980)

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Raising Henry Truscott

The crew has paused a while,
lawnmower resting in the dandelions and grass.
Downslope they gather round a toppled headstone,
the kid with tummy and cowboy hat,
Dad there too – same shape but more,
a worried guy who wants to do the right thing,
and two old farmers in faded shirts, suspenders and peaked caps,
holding a shovel and an iron bar.
Henry Truscott, born 1843, died 1921, has fallen down again.
Once more his neighbours work to set him straight.
On this spring Saturday, they gaze up the churchyard slope
where clouds mull over the notion of a sudden shower.
All around the smells of grass and spaded earth.
“Been looking up this hill for sixty years.” says the old guy with the spade.
“Henry too.” says the other,
while Dad measures the morning left, the uncut grass.
“Tom, that mower’s cooled by now.”

(May 1982)

Archie Lemon’s Farm

First Visits

On my first visits
I stumbled quickly through,
Sensing this to be a private place,
And possibly abandoned,
Yet potent with inhospitable ghosts.
Later I surprised them
Bending over in a row of weed-choked rhubarb,
Myrtle picking and Archie gathering.
There was anger in their gestures,
Myrtle blaming Archie for letting the weeds grow
And Archie sore at the weeds for growing.
Words I don’t recall.
There may not have been any.
I confess to being captured by the quaint
While sensing the dark undercurrents
I would later see and feel.
I returned many times with camera and drawing paper
Until, with practice,
My pencil plunged beneath the surface of the page
And clicked against the bones.

Archie & Myrtle Lemon’s House
Pearl Lemon’s Farm

Archie’s Pasture

To tell you about this place
I have first to map it,
shape the hills and hollows,
prickle the thickets,
scatter the birds,
conjure up the visitors,
all this underneath the hand of my mind.
Later, when the stream has been set in motion,
and the dusk falls smoothly,
I can tell you about the autumn noon,
the sun’s farewell caress on the back of your neck.

(October 1978)

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Canopy of Blessing

There are two books and one song I want to write about in introducing the poems I have chosen for this post: The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club 1988) by theologian Thomas Berry, Climbing Mount Improbable (Viking 1996) by evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins.

My copy of The Dream of the Earth is dog-eared and heavily annotated as a result of my readings in the 1990’s. Berry points out that the behaviour of all living creatures is controlled wholly or in part by genetic “codes” evolved by trial and error over very long periods of time. Of all living creatures, humans are the least constrained by their genetic codes, having developed through the faculty of consciousness, “cultural” codes of behaviour communicated across generations, codes that can accommodate incremental learning appropriate to the climate, terrain or other external conditions people find themselves in. Our cultural codes also include religious and or philosophical beliefs. Although it is assumed that cultural codes are widely shared within societies, they can also be highly individualistic. Because, until recently, our planet seemed vast and essentially unlimited, human cultural codes seem more devoted towards exploitation of the earth as a resource than to living in a harmonious relationship with the non-human parts of the planet.

Berry, as a theologian, believes in a numinous dimension to the Universe and he asks, if this is true, what contributions do conscious creatures like humans make towards confirming or acknowledging this numinous/spiritual quality? The essence of his answer, admittedly dumbed down, is that conscious creatures bearing witness to all they perceive are the Creator’s audience.

One of the defenses of “creationists” against evolutionary science was that the technical elegance of eyes was highly unlikely to have been achieved through a series of random mutations of DNA. The intervention of an intelligent designed was required, that of the Creator.

Richard Dawkins in his splendid book on evolution, Climbing Mount Improbable, shows that no deliberate intervention of an intelligent Creator is needed to build an eye and further, that eyes may have evolved independently more than once in the long passage of time. Because no deliberate designer other than carbon-based organic molecules and time is required to engineer complicated structures Dawkins is convinced that there is no numinous dimension to the Universe, no overseeing god etc. and he has not hesitated to say so.

Enter the contemporary singer-songwriter Iris Dement with a song about religious beliefs entitled “I Think I’ll Just Let the Mystery Be” that I find both funny and wise. One could wave off Dement’s insight as a lazy dismissal of the contrasts exposed by Thomas Berry and Richard Dawkins or one could accept these contrasts as deep, enduring and humbling mysteries.

With regard to my poems, and with particularly the ones I have included in this post, I realize that what inspired me to write them could be a whiff of the numinous that Thomas Berry refers to, an embracing of the possibility that I am, in that instant, part of the Creator’s audience. Feeble as my efforts may be, sometimes a visceral feeling tells me I have landed right, that I am momentarily in tune.

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Canopy of Blessing

Near noon and the sun full high,
though hid by opalescent cloud,
a hole is formed, the disc breaks through,
light and shadow shower down.
The rocks, the sea, forest hills,
the frail boat bearing me above dark water,
all sheltered in a canopy of blessing.

My worn hands upon the oars –
let them fashion praise of all I see.
My fading voice in clumsy song
honour all while listening still.
Protected, might I dare believe
These callings manifest your will?

(September 2012)

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Comet over Burlington

Harry, the neighbour, banged on the door
as we were pouring the last of the wine.
The conversation had slid into ribaldry.

“It’s the comet!” he said, in the tones of a prophet.
and chastened, we stumbled out into the yard.

The cold night air was a plunge in an ocean,
and all treading water we looked to the north.

Over
the roof-line of the house,
the supplicating arms of trees,
hung the comet.
Feathery fingers
streamed through the stars,
The Left Hand of God
raised slowly, slowly
to command silence.

Stupefied, we gazed,
Shivering illiterates.

(December 1996)

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The New Jerusalem

I am looking for Bernadette
in the church common-room, after service,
a banal errand of keys and thermostats.
A wool-capped kid confronts me,
with a smile that is a question.
He is reaching in his shirt pocket for a folded paper.
“Can I give you these prayers?”.

I take his paper and say “Thanks,
“I’ll read them later when it’s quiet.”
And a woman at my elbow says,
“Don’t mind Paul, he’s just a little –
“you know – intense.”

It is later now, and quiet.
The page of prayers lies on my desk.
A “Jesus Christ to Heart” prayer,
a prayer for Remorse and Resolve,
and one for Mercy and Forgiveness,
all calling for the New Jerusalem.

A schizoid boy or an urgent messenger from Value Village?
Saying that had you the Resolve and the Mercy
and the Accepting Heart so open to the Universe
that you could no longer tell inside from out
that the New Jerusalem might unfold at your feet
as you walked out to West Saanich Road,
as the cars sailed by,
on this November morning.

(November 2005)

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Song Lyrics

Fallen totem pole at the site of the abandoned Haida Gwaii village of Skedans 1986

Along with poems I have also written many songs. The lyrics of some of these, I feel, stand alone as poems. Here’s a sampling

  • A Song for Skedans was inspired by a visit to the abandoned Haida village of Skedans on Haida Gwaii. Skedans was depopulated and abandoned in 1862 by the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic among the susceptible First Nations people. I knew about the epidemic through the story of Metlakatla written by Howard White in Raincoast Chronicles, First Five, Collectors Edition (Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park BC, 1976) and it is a dark story conferring shame on the settler society of that time. Reflecting on the visit and the story, and alert to its power, expected to write something dark as well. Instead, these words came to me seemingly unbidden. I wrote them down and never changed a word. I first performed this song at my father’s memorial service.
  • Who Has Seen he Fitful Wind combines allusions to the four elements and the five senses into a hymn for the inter-relatedness of all life.
  • Bright With Use celebrates the life of a friend who was a committed environmental activist.

A Song For Skedans

The waves go rolling to the shore,
Each one growing, shouting, dying,
And the sea pulls back once more,
Tumult fades to gentle sighing.

The silent forest is not still;
Great trees loom awhile, then fall.
Young trees thrust from fallen forebears;
From branch to branch, the ravens call.

And so with men, whole villages and towns
Proudly rise, make signs, and fade.
Canoes, long beached, forget the sea,
And houses melt to forest glade.

From somewhere near a new wave swells,
And we are wafted in its flow,
To dash in angry breakers on the beach,
Or like the kelp, wash to and fro.

Out of chaos, silence builds.
Out of silence, singing flows.

(June 1986)

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Who Has Seen the Fitful Wind?

Oh, who can see the fitful wind?
“It’s ev’ry morning,” said the hawk,
“I see him in the ripples on the lake,
I see the grasses waving on the plain,
The sailing clouds upon the valley rim.”
And me, I was not looking there
But now I see wind everywhere.

And who can smell the gurgling water?
“In all my living,” said the fish,
“I smell the land washed off the hills by rain,
I smell the ocean when the tides are full,
I smell the life when sun and wind combine.”
I lacked the knowledge to compare;
Now I smell water everywhere.

Now who can tell the taste of earth?
“I’ve always tasted,” said the worm.
“I taste the death of leaves the wind brings low,
I taste the grains of sand from snowbound peaks,
I taste the wind in the breath of living trees.”
And all this time I did not dare
But now I taste earth everywhere.

And who among us touches fire?
Says the hummingbird, “Once I did.”
“I bear its embers on my breast
And in my quest for warmth I cannot rest.
I suck the blossoms that burn red like me.”
Once fearful of the scorching flare,
I learned I’m burning everywhere.

And who can hear the beating of my heart?
Does it beat all alone, just for my ears?
This longing that I feel sets me apart.
“But we have hearts!” I heard the creatures say,
“As they beat for us, so they beat for you.
Your senses freed, you need no longer drift;
Your heart will beat for us both night and day,
And this longing, once a curse, can be our gift,
For where it pulls you, surely we come too.”

( March 2007)

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Bright With Use

This old spade – hickory handled,
Oiled and smoothed with heat of many hands,
Plough-steel blade – worn smooth by garden scouring,
The gravel’s rasp and polish of soft sand.
Familiar in my hands, your heft is pleasure,
The lift and swing so easy in my arms.
Your strength of wood and steel is where my trust is,
The bold and cutting cleanliness of justice.

And my good axe – so surely hafted,
Well-balanced with no shocks for aging wrists.
Honed true – with each sharp blow I twist it;
The flying chips are bigger than my fist!
With you alone I’d fell the tallest timber,
And I admit that I’m the weaker one.
With gentle taps we cleave the bolts so pretty,
The even splits, a song for equity.

And my friend, although the time has claimed you,
God made you for hard work in a hard land,
And lifting you, he must have known the pleasure
Of tempered steel in an exacting hand.
You were not laid aside for want of keenness,
Worn down, but with no trace of rust.
And I’m praying when time turns my spirit loose,
Like you, dear friend, I’ll still be bright with use!

(September 2004)

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Windy Bay, Haida Gwaii

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Healing Places

Mount Douglas Park (near Ash Road)

My treatment for prostate cancer included forty blasts of radiation at the Cancer Clinic of the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. I cannot say enough good things about the Clinic and its staff. I felt supported and cared for. Nevertheless, at the end of each radiation episode, I needed to dispel the feeling of being caught up on a conveyor belt of treatments. Before joining the other conveyor belt of Highway 17 north to home, I spent an hour walking in some of Victoria’s beautiful open spaces. One of my favourite places was Mount Douglas Park, especially the southeast corner of the park where there is a grove of ancient Coast Maple trees and a trail down to the beach where a little creek enters the ocean. I return to this place often.

Trailhead and Cantilevered refer to Mount Douglas Park; Cascade derives from a photograph taken by Tim Rogers at the mouth of Tod Creek on Saanich Inlet, another place of sanctuary.

Trailhead

On the hillside bench
where lunchtime cars
park in forest shade,
a trail sidehills past
the buttress of a guardian fir
down the valley of a hidden creek.

The trail is scuffed by many feet,
yellowed with the crisp leavings
of a dry summer.

Low-tide odours mingle
with the musk of forest duff.
Blues of sky and water
flicker through a scrim of trees.

It is good to pause here on the bluff,
breathing, letting the heartbeat slow,
shedding the prison garb
of grey preoccupation,
before descending open-hearted
to the glory of the shining sea.

(August 2016)

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Cascade

Short of time,
I hastened down the trail
to where the creek
surrenders to the ocean.
I dared not linger.
At the little falls I stopped and gazed.
Cascading water hushed my thoughts.
Struggling, I remembered why
I was so hurried.
The creek said “Ssh.”
I thought about the uproar
in the world we have inherited.
The creek responded as it will
With “Ssh!”
Pliant, it guides its water
Back to home.

(February 2020)

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Cantilevered

Cantilevered from the crumbling bank,
brought low but curving to the light,
this fir persists.
One heavy rain into the clay might
refresh its roots but bring it down.
What to do but fashion needles, ripen cones?

Through the forest in the slope behind me
sunlight warms my shoulders.
The bright patch moves seawards;
I will not follow it.
Like the fir, I take what I need from this place,
learning not to ask “How long?”

(September 2017)

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Fraser River and Grindstone Creek

Our childhood home in Vancouver BC was on the north flank of Point Grey, a morainal bluff that overlooked the North Arm of the Fraser river. From my bedroom window I could see the river, Sea Island with its dairy farms (now mostly occupied by Vancouver International Airport) and beyond, the Salish Sea and the mountains of Vancouver Island. Upstream to the east was the workaday industrial area of Marpole dominated by the Euburne sawmills; west, a large boatyard and beyond that the Gulf of Georgia, now known as the Salish Sea. Along the banks of the North Arm were moored booms of logs on their way upstream to the sawmill and huge barges heaped high with sawdust waiting to be towed downstream to the river mouth and across the Salish Sea to the pulp and paper mills on Vancouver Island. The air smelled of tree resin. As a boy, I enjoyed hanging out on the river bank, often hopping from log to log on the moored booms, even though that dangerous activity was forbidden by my parents.

In the 90’s I began to write short prose pieces, recollections of my life from childhood on with the vague idea of combining them at some future time into an extended work. Fraser River (1950) was the first one.

The original version of this story had an ending in which I compared my dreams in 1950 with the realities of 42 years later. Instead of recapitulating what you know already about the decline of fishing and lumbering in British Columbia, I have extended the autobiographical reach of the story to include my career choice and something of my working years.

Logs bound upstream, sawdust bound downstream, and one of the many tugs busy on the river circa 1990. Note the unsorted quality of the logs indicative of a decline in quality of available timber.

Fraser River 1950 and Grindstone Creek 1980

A cool April wind blows out of the Gulf of Georgia and into the Fraser River.  The tide is ebbing, current flows against wind and the North Arm is filled with the whitecaps my mother calls “sea-horses”.  The big Douglas Fir at the front of the house sighs in the wind.  The lawn is littered with its dark-green twigs snatched in the night when the wind broke out of the west as the rain ended.  A tug is butting up the river to Marpole with a big tow of logs.  It hoots for the swing bridge at Euburne where in the lulls between gusts of wind we can hear the big saws at work on logs rafted in from the coastal forests.  When the wind drops the sea-smell of the Gulf and the river tide flats will be replaced by the pitchy aroma of fresh-sawn fir or cedar and the acrid smoke from the mill trash burner.  Today is good for drying laundry because the cinders that can pepper white sheets are being blown upriver to New Westminster.  Yellow trucks rattle down Marine Drive with loads of sawn slabwood and mill-waste to be consumed in the stoves and furnaces of the East End.  You can pick up chunks of wood that have jounced off the tops of the trucks every few feet along the road.  When the trucks pass there is a sweet smell of wood mixed with exhaust.  I would like to drive a yellow truck like that with the muscular dual rear wheels and the big exposed differential cases.

Tonight, my Aunt Ethel has promised that we will go down to the river.  I like these expeditions with Aunt Ethel because she lets me do forbidden things.  Such as running on the log booms that lie along the shore waiting for the saws at Euburne Mills.  An exciting but hazardous game, especially when the tide is ebbing, because if you fall then between two logs you can be dragged under the boom by the cold, grey water to be fished out hours later with a police pike-pole.  My parents repeat variants of such stories, how, for example, my great grandmother’s gardener, a powerful swimmer, was caught by the ebb tide current and emerged exhausted from the river miles downstream.  I feel exhilarated but safe on the logs.  They are big and steady, utterly indifferent to the skipping of a small boy.  And the rough and coruscated bark seems more sure than asphalt against my thick-soled runners.  Tonight it is not the prospect of skipping out to mid-channel on the backs of logs that has me excited but eulachon fishing at high tide. Eulachons arrive in the river each spring to spawn.  They are small fish, like smelts.  They are also called candlefish because when dried, they can be burned like a torch or a candle, they are so rich in oil.  I would like to try this but the fish I set aside smell very bad and become fuzzy before they get dry.  Eulachon grease is a staple of the First Nations’ diet along the rivers where they spawn.  Aunt Ethel and I will take a bucket down to the river and patrol the sandy shore.  Some people use dip nets and catch eulachons faster but we like to pounce and clutch at the little dark humps in the silty water as they wiggle into shore.  With twenty-five silver fish in a bucket I’ll feel a fisherman’s pride.

April has rolled over into September.  School starts again tomorrow.  Our family and Aunt Nora’s family have gathered for dinner at our grandparents.  They live nearby in a big house with a sweeping view of the Fraser’s North Arm.  At dinner, my grandfather, Uncle Hugh and my father have been talking about business, first telephone business, because that is what my Dad and my grandfather do, and then lumber and fishing business because this is British Columbia in 1950 and it is all around us.  I like it when my grandfather talks about big logging trucks that carry tanks of water just to keep their brakes cool on the mountain roads or when Uncle Hugh gets going on dredges and draglines. When they talk about money it is not so interesting but already I understand that if you want to have lots of it you have to cut down trees and saw them up, catch and can fish, or yell orders to men driving bulldozers.  If you were not in too big a hurry, you could sit at a desk like my Dad and tell people where to put telephones and telephone poles, but I like fish best. 

After dinner, my sister and I and two cousins play on the swing on the high bank above the river flood plain.  It is warm, the sun is low and golden, the breeze has fallen.  Every few minutes we hear a put-put-put sound of an Easthope motor as a gill-netter heads downstream for a night’s fishing in the Gulf.  The salmon are converging on the estuary as they begin their spawning run upstream and the fishermen, one man to a boat for the most part, will lay out their gill nets and drift all night.  At the far end of the net there is a little float with a flag and a hurricane lantern and there is a masthead light on each boat.  When the fishing is good there will be many boats out on the Gulf, a little city of lights.  Tugs and freighters sometimes churn hooting through the fleet and the fishermen scramble to get their boats and gear out of the way.  A gill netter can be yanked backwards and founder if the net gets caught by a big tug or a freighter.  My Dad and I sometimes walk along the wharves near Marpole and look at the fishboats.  Some of them don’t look very safe. If the wheelhouse door of a scruffy one is open you see an engine rusty and greasy in different places, wires and pipes held in place with bent nails, dirty sleeping bags jumbled on a rough bunk, and the glint of water in the bilges.  But I like the idea of catching salmon in my own boat, much as I am attracted to the notion of driving a yellow slabwood truck.  My father’s laconic un-hunh’s in response to such statements indicate that I should think again.  I am catching on.  The kids I meet from Marpole have Dads, uncles or brothers that make “big money” on gillnetters or extra shifts on the trucks but it’s money that comes and goes like the river freshets while my dad wets his line in the sluggish stream of a salaried job and compound interest.  All the same, tonight at the end of summer, constricted by my Sunday clothes and the thought of a  winter of school, I gaze through the amusement park telescope my grandfather has placed on the bank near the swings, tracking a late fishboat that cuts a downstream V in the reflected sunset, watching the fisherman leaning on the wheelhouse, steering from the outside position, and dreaming of nosing out into the Gulf myself to meet the fat and silver salmon.

My first salmon – September, 1948

I did not become an independent commercial fisherman; I took some of my father’s advice and studied engineering at the University of British Columbia. In my undergraduate years I spent several summers as an intern of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in Nanaimo where I helped out on offshore cruises intended to map the deep ocean structures in their own right and to relate this information to the ocean years of Pacific Salmon. I loved the mix of sea-going and science. When I revealed this enthusiasm to one of my father’s business associates he snorted, “My God, boy! You might as well become a minister!”

With no pre-planned career path, I seized opportunities as they presented themselves. Thus I acquired a Masters degree from McGill University’s Ice Research Group and spent the next 4 years as a NATO research associate attached to the Laboratoire Nationale D’Hydraulique in Paris, France . In December 1967, married and with a child on the way, we returned to Canada where I had accepted a position the newly established Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario. For the next 30 years I would be a Great Lakes freshwater oceanographer.

My association with Pacific salmon continued in Ontario. Thanks to the extirpation of landlocked Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario due to overfishing, streambank clearing, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the presence of the Welland Canal, small, herring-like ocean fishes called alewives made their way into the Great Lakes and prospered to excess. There were no predators to match the scale of the invasion. The “cure” was to introduce hatchery-raised Pacific Salmon to crop the alewives. The salmon grew large and fat and created a large sport fishing industry. Because they were large and fat and at the top of the aquatic food chain they had accumulated significant burdens of toxic organic substances washed into the lakes via rivers or rain from the surrounding industry. People were advised to limit or even avoid meals of lake-caught salmon. This warning applied particularly to pregnant women.

Some mature salmon ready to spawn found their way from the big lake into rivers and creeks. A few streams proved capable of supporting small runs of spawning salmon. However the sport-fishing industry ultimately relied on annual releases of hatchery fry. Grindstone Creek drained wetlands and farms north of Burlington, Ontario and flowed south over the Niagara Escarpment into Hamilton Harbour close to where we lived. It is a beautiful little creek snuggled into its narrow valley but very polluted. It was with mixed feelings that I encountered large spawning coho salmon in the creek on autumn afternoons. My work and the salmon’s lives were both bound up in the industrial matrix of Southern Ontario.

My son and I went fishing once in Lake Ontario in early spring when fish tended to congregate between the warm onshore water and the cold open lake. We caught a large lake trout, a fish at the top of the lake’s food chain, like the salmon. The public advisory said we could safely eat a few servings of lake trout per month as long as we were not pregnant. We never fished in Lake Ontario again although we did enjoy fishing in Georgian Bay and on canoe trips.

From time to time I went fly fishing with my father in British Columbia. He taught both me and my son the rudiments of the sport. On the evening of a splendid day’s fishing on Pennask Lake, in the highlands between Penticton and Merrit BC, my father got up from the dinner table, walked a few steps and died. He was a just and caring man of his time and I like to think that the Creator knew it.

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Cohoes in Grindstone Creek

Strange we should meet here,
you and I, Pacific creatures.
warmed by a late sun.
You rest against the rocks and clay,
down among the willows
where golden leaves
glide smolt-like through the pools
to the brooding lake.

I watch your struggle,
wish it were the consummation of a cycle;
then I could rejoice at this meeting.
But this is no ice-fed stream,
purling over clean boulders to a salty gulf;
it yields instead the foamy juice of a worn land.
And the next rain,
sluicing off the parking lots,
engineered past bungalows in concrete ducts
will undo your labours,
capriciously misplaced,
erase your silver memories.

(October 1982)

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Tyee

I see my father in the bow
of the wooden boat
I owned before I left this Coast.

Cowichan sweater, ragged cuffs,
his fishing hat is stained with use,
the stink of herring on his fingers.

Other boats lie all around,
calls and conversation,
this brave September morning.

We’re all dreaming of Tyee,
a silver fish that circles deep,
fat but fiercely greedy still.

Eager, and greedy too,
we were among the last
to entertain a faith in plenty.

(March 2019)

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Shape

In the summer of 1999 we moved from Burlington, Ontario to North Saanich on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. We took the long way around, a three-month road trip with a camper trailer, dog, canoe and bicycles, heading east to Newfoundland then west to British Columbia, arriving in early September. I collected many sketches (see above) and photographs and kept a detailed journal. The poem Shape emerged from this experience later when a guest speaker at the First Unitarian Church of Victoria suggested that all things pray, including “inanimate” objects. The theme of physical form continues with Shelf Fungi, a poem inspired by a stunning photograph taken by Tim Rogers, a photograph that reveals the delicate architecture of soft tissue engineered over a very long time.

Shape

Above the South Saskatchewan
grassy hills rise north and south
with willowed gullies running to the river.

The sun is rising above the valley’s rim
while shadows retreat across the open ground
to their daytime lairs of thickets.

A random dryland garden glows.
The grasses rattle.
Prickly pears claim space,
and the stones, cradled in clay,
take colour as they warm.
They are marked with black and orange lichens,
a deft and careless calligraphy of koans.
Just so!

The stones are rounded.
Torn from distant matrices, they’ve travelled far.
The wastage of their journey,
pebbles, grit and mud,
lies about them,
and they will shrink and split, shift and roll
under the strobe of seasons,
until they become matrix again,
and many times yet.

Someone told me
that in the calm of morning, after the stillness of deep night,
all things pray,
in silence find their centres,
measuring from the current point of balance
to the curved expression of surface
around which the world must flow.

And now I guess the prayer of stone,
a single word that marks the start of being.

Our prayer is shape.

(May 2000)

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Shelf Fungi

Tension between the bounding curves
and the ordered striations of the gills,
that yields both surface and strength.
Who ordained this fleeting elegance, we ask?

Some claim that our discerning eyes
must be the work of some deliberate designer,
and yet a wrinkle in the skin
can sense where comes the light.

This complexity emerges
in a brief convergence
of light, gravity and stuff,
a placement that frees the elements
to test all combinations,
arising in this span of possibility.
Like this poem.

(November 2019)

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My Holy Moments

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My holy moments
are when the moon shines
bright in the kitchen window
on a winter morning,
or when I hold a bowl of water,
remember its importance in a dry land,
or when I am merged in music
made together with my comrades,
or solitary, with a brush and colours
searching out the beauty that has lured me.

All this I would share with you
in hopes that you might validate my witnessing,
delight me with the story you would tell.

But such desires
seem grotesquely out of place
in this tumult of catastrophes.
Although catastrophes of old
have made a place for us.

And yet, when fear and loathing
would push aside all that we share,
men and women knelt in the streets,
and prayed forgiveness,
for having overlooked,
all these years,
the simple fact that we are one,
borne on this frail planet
together.
I wept.

(June 2020)

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Enough

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Walker Hook is an appurtenance on the east flank of Saltspring Island. Drifting material. trees, logs, sand, plugged the gap between Salt Spring and a small rocky island a few hundred meters offshore. We anchored our sloop on the south side of the hook on a warm summer day and let the day flow through us. Enough, a richly layered word on its own,  derived from our attendance at the outdoor summertime wedding of middle-aged friends.

Walker Hook

On the dry knoll, in the shade of a tough old fir,
we recline embraced by the earth,
breathing the perfume of salt water, dry grass and resin.

Our sloop tugs lazily at her anchor.
Fronds of kelp wave gently from her rudder.
Wavelets approach the dinghy on the sand.
Its painter stretches up the beach belayed to nothing.

Lichened rocks are strewn in the yellow grass
with all the cunning of a master gardener.
Just so!

The shadows and sea-stones dry chocolate black.
Where the sun strikes the sea lettuce, green flashes like a beacon.
And southwards, the shining sea, the island hills,
meet the blue of sky where galleons of clouds are drifting.

Fast and slow, change flows through us.
There is nothing to say.
There is nothing to do.
There is nothing to fear.

(August, 2005)

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Enough

I read somewhere
that if you could tease apart
the coils of code embedded in a single cell,
that strand would stretch a zillion miles, CGU, CGC, CGA, CGG, AGA…
a veritable bible with its discursive stories of the ancients
and the meandering narrative that leads to a creature
equipped to glimpse the face of God
but wilful enough to cut loose from the anchoring questions.

These rocks on which we stand today
are themselves replete with stories from the start of time
for those who care to read.
We gaze into the wind and sea
where a myriad of elegant assemblages
pursue the slow and graceful dance of long elaboration
in which every participant is honoured in the fulness of its time
as once we were and pray might be again.

That word “enough” comes repeatedly to mind
like a frond of kelp revealed and hidden by the passing waves.
Sometimes a question, sometimes a reproach,
Sometimes an exaltation.

Two people, not yet old but no longer young
stand on the rocks in their wind-stirred wedding clothes.
They have passed this way before, known disappointment, loss.
Their resolve to love each other as they find themselves today, tomorrow,
breathing, scuffed, hopeful,
brings us close to tears.
We feel the presence of a music climbing to a sweet resolving chord:
Enough.

(July 2006)

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Southey Point 7-97

Not Just Nourishment

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Whitefish and Solstice Spuds speak for themselves. In my working career as a Great Lakes scientist I was often in Windsor, Ontario, at the International Joint Commission offices to meet with  our U.S. colleagues from Ann Arbor, Michigan, or to conduct field work on Lake St. Clair.  These junkets often involved  camping out in inexpensive motels, the inspiration for Restaurant Raspberries.

 

Whitefish

The day is silver-grey,
The colour of the fish’s back I prepare for dinner.
The flesh is cool and pleasant to the touch,
Like the inside of a sleeping lover’s arm.

And maybe it’s just the gloomy day,
Or maybe the closeness of this change from life to meat,
But I am wistful,
Imagining this compliant body
Bright, taut and flashing in cold, clear northern water.

It is tenderness I feel,
Placing the onions and parsley along the spine,
Sprinkling the rosemary, chastely closing the body’s opening.
The herbs are from our garden;
I am consoled by these preparations

(September 1997)

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Solstice Spuds

Old potatoes,
Pocked and pitted, thick and bitter skins,
These will see you through the longest winter.
Plain old spuds and turnips, steaming on a plate
While wind and rain lash the black window
And damp sheets in the next room wait
To ferry us across the long nights to sunrise and a new season.

Ah, but new potatoes,
Dug upon midsummer’s eve,
With skins that peel away under a child’s soft thumb!
These have no wisdom and they are willing
To lie in a white bowl, clad only in melted butter,
Abandoned to the rising glories of the flesh
And no thought for winter.

(June 2004)

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Restaurant Raspberries

The waitress brings neat omelettes,
triangles of toast,
and jam, sealed in plastic doses.
I see your dark hair
waving among the raspberries,
your fingers red with juice,
dancing in a suppertime sun.
Moving out from you,
I have become a ghost
nourished by shadows.

(November, 1978)

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Transitioning

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Moving from boats to boundaries and beyond, it’s hard to choose a sequence that seems to flow.  Night Guitar and Another Door Opens, written at different times, both refer to the edges of the underworld but without the drama that might be appropriate to a younger person. I’d like to develop this more pictorially but for now this little drawing will have to do.

Night Guitar

Some nights I wake
and know that sleep no longer guards me
from the rabble of my undirected dreams.

I wander barefoot to this room,
its view of moonlit trees and sky.
An old guitar waits for me there.

Left hand upon its slender neck,
right upon its curving body,
my fingers feel the tensions of its strings.

Alive to the shadows’ mute suggestions,
I break the silence of this sleeping house
with a first, questioning chord.

And when a tune takes shape, I sometimes sing.
An audience of memories gathers near,
so many that they crowd the room

I play to you,
unnamed woman in the bed across the ward,
who struggled painfully to rise
but sank back again to listen.

I play for you, dear friend,
remembering the distant trees
when oaks still held their russet leaves
that grey November day.

I play until the first grey light appears
and one by one the listeners wander off,
having no place in this prosaic world.

So I will play on other sleepless nights
until I set this bridging instrument aside,
join those who long to be remembered.

(November, 2018)

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Another Door Opens

The phantom door stood closed before us all for weeks,
though you kept eyeing it,
fearful at first, then later, as the weightlessness took hold,
you seemed to struggle towards it
We dared not hold you back.
And when at last you crossed the sill
there was no spill of light as the door swung to receive you.
Nothing revealed, the door and you were gone.
The clock by the bed jerked stupidly ahead.

Now as the days pull straight to other doors that wait,
there comes a scrap of music, a melody of chatter:
I think to hear you in some sidewalk’s busy clatter.
until I realize that somewhere, another door has opened,
releasing you like perfumed smoke
to drift in wisps and dreams throughout our days,

(January, 2007)

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