Coquihalla River

 

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In the 90’s I began writing short prose pieces about what I felt were significant personal experiences. I had no clear idea  as to what purpose these writings might fulfil other than augmenting my enjoyment of stringing words together. These are not stripped down like poems but they might come from the same places.

Coquihalla River (Summer 1945?)

We started out early from Vancouver in my Aunt Joanie’s car, my mother, my sister Jane and I, Aunt Joanie and Jill. It is one hundred miles up the Fraser Valley to Hope and in 1944, the two-lane road passes through the main streets of all the little farming towns, Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack. The Valley is wide near Vancouver and the mountains are distant. We travel on the south bank of the Fraser once we have crossed over the Patullo Bridge at New Westminster. Beyond Cloverdale we are squeezed in by mountains, and the road through lush and level fields is forced onto the flank of the mountains by the muddy and turbulent Fraser that now appears on the left hand side. Three hours have passed and we children are bored, but we revive briefly at the challenge of looking for feathery waterfalls plunging into the forest off the mountains on the right hand side. At lunchtime we arrive on a gravelly bench where the Fraser emerges from its canyon through the Coast Range in a sweeping bend to the south. The town of Hope is dusty with gravel roads, its streets shaded with river cottonwoods. There is a general store, two gas stations on the main road, a hardware store, a liquor store with shaded windows, a police station and two churches. The sun is high and bright. Dogs snooze in pools of shade under the cottonwoods.

We turn off the highway away from the big river and instantly raise a plume of dust behind the car. But the glare of the noon sun quickly softens as we enter the forest and the chalky smell of dust is replaced by the perfume of leaf mould and cedars. We cross the Coquihalla river on a one-lane timber bridge in the dappled shade of alders near its junction with the Fraser. The Coquihalla here is green, transparent with a muscled and writhing surface. The air has become cool. We find a lane of two tire tracks leading towards the river. Bushes rustle on the bottom of the car; leaves brush at the windows. The lane drops to the flood plain of the Coquihalla and we emerge into a clearing before a brown shingled cottage. The motor stops. We burst out of the cramped car, ready to run. But my Jane and I are transfixed by a noise we cannot identify, a roar like a March wind, but not like a big wind because it does not vary. It is steady, authoritative, and somehow strangely solitary, an endless monologue with no expectation of a reply. I look toward the sound but I cannot see clearly through the trees. I am aware of sun falling into the open a hundred yards away and in the opening, transient shards of white light.

Mum, Aunt Joanie and Jill think our apprehension is funny. They lead us to the river bank and we gaze across the brawling Coquihalla, sunlit against the black wall of Hope Mountain, light flashing from white rollers on green water, a blazing band of grey-white granite cobbles in the mid channel bar, the air full of noise and chaotic motion. I am thirsty. I ask for a drink. “Drink out of the river.” says Aunt Joanie. The idea is scary but irresistible. I am led to the water’s edge where the river plays more gently against rounded boulders. Aunt Joanie clutches my belt while I lean out on hands and knees towards the water. We are in the shade of cedars but a flickering green light shines from the river into my face. My hands are in the water. It is cold. Coached by Aunt Joanie, I lower my face to the surface. I see a trout flicker into the shadows. The river is the only sound I hear. For the first of a few precious times I have become something elemental, reduced to a simple clarity, a thirsty creature at the water’s edge. No water has ever tasted as clean or as lonely.

If  I were to rework this recounting  of my first powerful experience of awe as a poem, I would be tempted  to end it here at this climactic moment. I reveal now that the day held one more powerful experience for my sister Jane and I. Later that afternoon a freight train came through on the nearby Kettle Valley Line, heading up the steep grades of the Coquihalla Valley. It was powered by several steam locomotives, fully stoked, working hard and whistling as the train approached the canyon tunnels. In the narrow valley with multipe echos, the noise was overwhelming. The afternoon started with awe and ended with terror. 

My sister and I got over the terror in the next few days because the trains kept rumbling through and we knew about trains. The river took no notice and kept on with its private monologue night and day. My memory of primordial awe  remains vivid as do the memories of the many times we visited that cottage on the banks of the Coquihalla.  Roll on, Coquihalla, you are a beautiful river and your name is a pleasure to the tongue.

 

 

 

The Wisdom of Pets

 

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Sunday, April 5, 2020: Today the first Unitarian Church of Victoria presented an “isolation” service where leaders and congregation alike participated from their homes via the internet conferencing scheme, ZOOM. It was great, technically viable and full of content. One of the questions put out to the congregation with referenced to the pandemic was “Want do you find hard to let go of?” and a member replied with a strong, one-word answer “Expectations.” Oddly enough, the stuff I wanted to post today was about our pets, dogs and cats, creatures who live day-to-day with no expectations. That is one of the reasons we love them. Worry some when watching the 6 pm news these days but otherwise take your cues from the cat.

 

Enlightenment Behind the Travelodge

Between the roadway and the Travelodge,
a patch of grass made green by autumn rains.
An old man stands with his leashed dog.

A scrawny tree nearby
still holds golden leaves,
though many have fallen.

The man is struck by some arresting thought.
Perhaps he has been released
to the freedom of pure existence.

The dog is about to pee and is glad to be on grass.
Or the dog, having peed,
enjoys the lightness of the moment.
Either way, it claims the zone.

(November 2018)

 

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Cat in Sunlight on Christmas Day

 

Through the kitchen window
a fall of sunlight pools
across the patterned carpet
where the cat,
alert to all that changes,
sprawls among the radiant woven roses.

Shepherds, Magii, we are told,
followed light,
but hesitated at its edges,
fearful of what it could mean
to step forward from the shadows.

The old cat, enlightened fully,
purrs a while, then sleeps.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements: Roderick Haig-Brown, E.J. Hughes, Takao Tanabe, R. Restrepo

 

 

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Roderick Haig-Brown is one of my heroes as an articulate naturalist and effective human being. Roderick’s novels, Starbuck Valley Winter and Saltwater Summer, inspired me as a boy; Saltwater Summer is a story about learning responsibility the hard way; I wanted to be a fisherman like its heroes, Don and Tubby. These books nudged me towards my career as an environmental scientist.

E.J. Hughes’ moody paintings of the Vancouver Island of my boyhood evoke admiration of E.J.’s mastery of form and feeling and nostalgia for a time that seemed to be bathed in golden light. It was September sunlight on Hornby Island that told me it was time to come back home.

Takao Tanabe is another fine artist inspired by the landscapes of British Columbia. My poem was written after visiting a 2005 retrospective exhibition of his work at the Greater Victoria Art Gallery. Tanabe’s huge canvasses depicting waterways and prairies viewed from eye level made me catch my breath. I wanted to walk or paddle deep into them.

I include a tribute to one of my university mentors, Professor R. Rodriguez who taught me and my engineering classmates the rudiments of differential and integral calculus. Under his instruction calculus emerged as a graceful, elegant, endlessly useful tool. Professor Rodriguez was also a discerning collector of Canadian paintings and several significant paintings were donated from his collection to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

 

To Roderick Haig-Brown and E.J. Hughes

At bay’s end where the little river flows
the mud-flats are policed by crows,
clams crowd thickly in the ooze,
and you can moor a wooden boat
in brackish flow inimical to worms.
Among the drift pushed high by ancient storms
wild roses strew their sharp perfume.
beyond, two cows, an old horse,
rows of spuds and peas,
a small and weather-beaten house,
scattering of sheds
and wood smoke trailing from a fire of slash.
The valley folds among the dark green hills.
High above the trees
the snow hangs on ‘till summer blooms.

It’s there, Roderick,
the Starbuck Valley and Saltwater of my boyhood
I dreamed across my schoolbooks to the window,
where west wind blew through broom and fir.
And it’s here, E.J.
in your deliberate dreaming pictures,
I re-imagine my life.

(October, 2005, revised March 2014)

 

Homage to Takao Tanabe

We were walking to the gallery on a clear winter day
past old houses, bare roses, frosty grass,
a corner of the city not given to commerce or display
but to the settled life of order and continuity,
cold leaf mould, woodsmoke, coffee in our noses,
slow-moving cars, young mothers with prams,
late morning walkers with scarves and gloves.

Lauren, your mentor, has painted these:
city houses, refuges on snowy streets
in the glow of the late afternoon as the workday ended
and the dweller, homebound, dreamed of shelter, warmth and supper.
But you, Tanabe, took his other path
beyond his monuments of mountains
to footing on planes of prairies or of oceans with smooth horizons
where the weather is seen far off
and the distance can be gauged in terms of footsteps or paddle-strokes.
Here, on the geopotential from which your measure is taken
and that of hills, coulees, islands, gravel bars beyond,
you have registered the space and silence                                                                                    in which it is possible to discern and maybe enter
the world’s breathing.

(December, 2005, revised February 2016)

 

To R. R.

When I was an upstart boy
you taught us with your spare white drawings,
the cadence of your Spanish voice,
the consolidations of Newton and Leibnitz.
They told how the simple logic of the small
could sum to show the secrets of the circle,
the silken weaving of the sinusoid.

Your pleasure in such elegance bore me to
humility before the revelations of the great.
With the gleaming tools you laid before us
I hacked away at simple problems.
These gave me leisure to explore
pleasure conveyed by marks upon a neutral ground,
the deft approximations of a loaded brush – the rush
of admiration when confronted by the struggles of the gifted.

Sixty years on, I stand before a canvas full of light and wonder,
and I note that you admired it, too
but gave it freely as you did those lessons long ago.
The crude calculus of mortality
warns you may be gone as I approach the edge,
smiling at the symmetry of this our latest meeting.

(January, 2016)

 

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Three Good Things

 

 

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This post is a small tribute to my partner of fifty-five years, Penny.  Most of you will have a mental  picture as she is today, trim, active, very much alive. The drawings bookending the trio of poems are from my sketchbooks of 1979 and 1980 when I was developing my drawing skills at the Dundas Valley School of Art.

 

Three Good Things

When I got home I told my wife
about the huckleberries growing from a stump
as I remembered them,
a boy at the edge of the woods.
The redness set among the pale green,
the easy way the berries roll into the outstretched hand,
and the taste on the tongue’s edge
of wildness calling deeper in the forest.
Oh I was young once!

I told he next, how later at the water’s edge
I looked west towards the mountain
as the sun rose hidden by a screen of cloud.
There in the raindrops of an idle shower
lingering on the giant’s shoulder, a patch of rainbow colour
that might have marked the place                                                                                           where Abraham unsheathed his knife
and was stayed.

And then, my stories told,
I looked at where my wife lay late abed,
tea at her elbow, papers on the floor,
reading glasses on the tip of her nose,
looking up at me and smiling,
the old cat sunk into the comforter
and purring like a worn-out fan.
I told you – three good things.

(July, 2007)

 

The Marmalade Years

When someone spreads the final blob
of dark and bitter marmalade
upon their morning toast,
perhaps they’ll think to find
the spattered book of recipes preserved,
and seek the page for Seville marmalade.
they’ll find the annotations and the log of jars
produced each year,
season after season,
reliable as snowdrops.
Or so it seemed.

But the snowdrops still appear
As oranges ripen.
Oh the sweetness of
The marmalade years!

(February 2014)

 

What could I Do?

This morning I was up early,
crept through our room gathering clothes
for Monday’s load of chores.

Arms full, I watched you sleep,
Tousled hair, your face relaxed,
in this soft light so beautiful.

I listened to your quiet breath then stole away.
What could I do with this rush of love
But make you pancakes?

(August 2019)

 

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Fire

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Slash Fires

If “slash fire” rolls off your tongue
Like raindrops from a Woods jacket,
There’s every chance you wintered
once upon the Island.
There blokes with acreage and a cow or two
Hacked away at their wooded edges (plots)
after a day’s work in the clear-cuts
to scratch more pasture for the cows.
They sawed rough boards from the timber,
filled the shed with pitchy chunks,
gained more standing with the neighbours
strewn along the gravel roads.
As October’s drizzle slicked the leaves,
made creeks to sing and colours blaze
they’d set the heaps of slash afire.
Each lungful of the perfumed haze
told them they were breathing.

My wife’s Dad, the pilot,
proposed a bonding expedition.
He flew the two of us to Phantom Lake.
Ringed by jagged hills, there’s one way in or out.
The gap looks to the fjord below
where slash fires smoldered in the clearcut.
We fished awhile.
Wind changed and we did not see
the smoke rise to fill the gap.
The pilot dropped his rod and said, “Let’s go!”
It was already late.
Airborne, and fuel low,
we struggled in a circling climb
until we got above the smoke and waiting hills
to find a way to fuel
and chastened, make it home.

On Pat Bay, this spring,
some flimsy houses in a stand of firs
were all brought down
to bulldozed heaps of mangled lumber,
roots and stumps, the sawlogs set aside.
The rest is mud and realtors’ signs.
The slash will burn before the rains are gone.
Thick plumes of smoke will rise to meet the wind,
disperse among the houses on the Tseycum land,
the heron nests in alders standing by,
that familiar odour of the restless.

(April 7, 2015)

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heron against orange sun

photo courtesy of Terry Venables

 

Heron Against Orange Sun

A stillness in the air like snow was coming,
early in the day but it’s too warm.
Dry for a month and months to go
before the quenching of the rains.

Something bad has happened.
The light’s all wrong.
The sun glows like melting steel
in Satan’s forge.

From places near and far
smoke has poured down to us
though valleys from the burning hills
where centuries of patient growth
are ashed in a short day.

Great bird so still
photographed against an orange sun,
in your ancient mind do you recall
this scent of fire?

You ask only for a little
and your wise wings could fly you there
while we are burdened with our taking,
questions and recriminations.

(11/07/2015)

 

Wain Rock

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Wain Rock lies just off Deep Cove at the north end of the Saanich Peninsula. It is (or used to be) a favourite fishing spot. It is not located where you might expect a big rock and although it is clearly marked on the chart and has a beacon visible by night and day, I always wanted to keep it clearly in view when leaving or entering the Deep Cove Marina aboard our sailboat. At low tide the rock is a favourite seal haul-out but there is little room for seals at high tide. It is a favourite destination for an early morning kayak cruise but I have always felt that the rock, despite its proximity to a densely settled shore, was not of the same world, remaining aloof and even a little threatening.


Wain Rock

It’s good to come here early in the day
when the breeze strokes the water with her lightest touch
and the sun, half-wakened slow to rise,
warms and warns of noonday skies.

Kayak’s stern waves chuckle.
Arms learn the weight of water.
Body bends to breathing.
Mind floats free of chatter.

And now the rock itself,
protruding like a giant tooth,
contours looming while we glide,
it twists the slow assault of tide
to lazy whorls in silence.

Upon this rock is built
a clumsy cube of masonry,
a ladder and a beacon tower.
And I imagine, boat upset by carelessness,
climbing, scraped and soaked,
with darkness falling,
clinging to this bleak defense,
while calling to indifference.

(June 2015)

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On another morning visit to Wain Rock the tide was beginning to ebb strongly and the rock in mid-channel generated eddies as the water flowed by. My earlier feeling about the rock as an unfriendly refuge was replaced by a fascination with the oscillating tidal flows that would continue as long as the oceans were filled and moon circled earth.

Breathing

Out here at Wain Rock in the warming early light
there is no sound of motors.
There is the whispering of water
as the Inlet exhales its high-tide breathing.

I nose the kayak into the riffle
Where Wain Rock shoulders the flow aside,
Let the current carry us some distance seaward.
Fronds of seaweed wave us on.

I imagine this to-and-fro in time,
obedient to the rhymes of gravity, and motion,
stretching before us and beyond us,
as long as there are hills and deep salt water.

Breathe in, breathe out…

(August 24 2017)

Mount Tuam (Salt Spring Island)

 

 

P1000932 4poleMount Tuam , also known as the Sacred Mountain, rises on the southwest ‘corner’ of Saltspring Island, overlooking Satellite Channel and the north end of the Saanich Peninsula. For years I thought that ‘Tuam’ was a First Nations name but the mountain is most likely named after the cathedral town of Tuam in County Galway, Ireland. The summit (606 m) is one of the highest points on Saltspring Island and it can be seen from many places on the Saanich Peninsula all the way south to Victoria. Its presence is so dominant in North Saanich that I came to view Mount Tuam as an overlooking guardian and record-keeper.

Snow on Mount Tuam

It’s only a hill, really,
but you can’t hide from Tuam.
Tuam looks down on you,
and you can feel it, too,
the overlooking presence that
knows where and who you are.
Tuam no longer judges;
Tuam just keeps track,
.
Clouds don’t give a darn;
Self-absorbed, they waltz the sky,
Up, down, near or far,
Benign or full of mischief.
Sometimes they rest a while,
Propped up by the hills,
blocking Tuam’s sight lines.

When clouds moved on this morning
they left Tuam painted white.
“Don’t worry,” they said on parting,
“next bunch will wash it off.”
A blessing or reminder that
mountains, too, grow old?
I find it beautiful but cold.
(December 30, 2015)

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Impertinence

I stood before you, Tuam.
with paints and a panel of deep space blue.
You looked, may I say, a little smug,
standing back and saying “Here we are.”

The trees across the bay
turned their backs to me,
awaiting your approval.
Maybe they are still waiting.

One or two were over-dressed
in golds and yellows.
I know that does not please you.
But such glory will not last.

The sky lay on your shoulders,
white cloud upon your western flank.
Impertinence though it was
they looked good on you.

The sea did not brood in glassy silence.
Neither did it roar in wind-swept rage.
Forgot its task to wear away
all that dare to rise above it.

That’s you and me, Bub.

First I painted your shawl of sky,
respecting the contour of your ridge,
then the row of trees along the shore,
the tall ones dark against your glow.

Next, the indifferent sea,
some bushes and a path
to show that I, like you,
was poised upon the ground.

And then, it seems disloyal
(though perhaps you knew),
Right side, a young arbutus,
larger on the page than you.

I stepped back.

My image still without you
showed a hole punched through
to space where we might fall
were you not there to stop us.

With racing heart, I brushed you in
Before the cosmos noticed, and then,
to show the fickleness of men,
I daubed the scarlet clusters of arbutus fruit.

(October 26 2016)

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