Saturday, November 4, 2017

Unusually warm again: on the peculiarly temporary sensation of enjoying climate change

I wrote this on October 28, but it is still true in November, this humid unseasonable weather that clings to the days and makes our nights sweaty and confusing.

A band of clouds gathers over the outermost islands, but here, closer inland, the sky is blue and the sun warm, the air sweet and gentle, hot even, if you're in the lee of the breeze. Dragonflies fall into the sea; you notice them because they spin in the water in their death throes, their wings still revolving. The great blue herons still fish from the pond and at the backs of the coves, and the loons still gather and linger, floating silently some distance offshore.

It's still so warm that some of the lupines have burst into bloom again; likewise the thistles, and at night, here and there, we can hear a few frogs creaking and singing from the mud, as if we might skip winter and it were spring all over again. Mosquitoes still gather and slow moving flies bumble into our hair as we walk at the forest edge. Meanwhile, the apples ripen and drop from the trees, the cranberries redden and sweeten,  and the ferns have turned brown and begun to crumble.  Wild rosebushes gleam yellow and scarlet; rose hips jewel along the path by the shore. The tamaracks (or larches, as they are called in the US,) yellow and begin to drop their needles. These are all sure signs of autumn; nevertheless, no one can be sure that it has arrived.

We walk and stretch and snooze in the afternoon sun, eat carrot salad for lunch, sip green tea. Golden light halos the yellowing leaves still clinging to the trees, and porcupines mumble in the underbrush.  The dog flushes pheasants and young grouse; deer droppings pebble the yard. The grass is still green. We sit on the porch and read, stare out over the water, and puzzle over when the cold will come. A spate of warmest, record-breaking days unfolds week over week. Every denies it, but we all love it. I think Canadians like climate change, says Elisabeth, who at nearly 83 is our household elder.

And so do we, even as the dwindling numbers of returning ducks and strange and sudden appearance of exotic fish in the water and razor clams along the beach alarm us. We all catch what feel like summer colds, but enjoy walking barefoot through the house and wearing t-shirts and shorts at the end of October. Where will it all end?

We don't want it to end, but this ongoing spate of warm weather makes us nervous.  It is as if we are holding our collective breath: the world has gone unpredictable, and we do not know what will come next. 

Meanwhile, the usual rapaciousness of superextractive industries continues and everything we touch turns to waste.  Every day brings idiot pronouncements from Washington, along with increasing rollbacks of environmental protections. The poor are ever poorer, the rich richer.  Insects are dying in unprecedented numbers; new wars break out nearly every day, and the number of global refugees tops 65 million. Nothing we have thoughts immutable is going to stay the same and we here, we privileged denizens of the global north, are largely to blame: this is the truth from which we frantically turn, as we thumb through our facebook feeds, liking, liking, loving, weeping, again and again.  (Look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Poem trying to get in out of the rain

Autumn rattles at the windows of the night, rips
leaves from looping trees, punches
gustily against the wall.
I waken to creaking roofbeams, peer
sightless into blacklit night. Nothing
to see, but everything that is is sounding:
such a rush and crash of waves on rocks;
the clothesline sings a one-note samba,
the chimney turns to didgeridoo.
Only the dog sleeps, silent, beside me.
If I open the door to let the poem in,
it can sleep all night on the bench by the fire and
I'll return to bed then to wake you, slipping
frigid feet behind your knees.

Photos are of Usnea, or "Old man's beard" lichens in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Journey's End, or Reflections As One Thing Passes Into Another

Sky passes into sea, Rose Harbour, Kunghit Island, Gwaii Hanaas

4:30 am Atlantic Daylight Savings Time Sunday 27 August, 2017  West Quoddy, Nova Scotia

Just a week ago we were in British Columbia, preparing for our last day on the boat for the year.  We'd moved into the launch slip, for the boat was to be hauled for some repairs, and eaten a quiet meal in the cockpit as darkness dropped over the Fraser River.  Overhead, dozens of airplanes streamed in on the same route: a sharp turn over the towers of the Alex Fraser Bridge, and then the lock onto a final approach over the river; they rumbled overhead to the airport, lights like a searching beam coming right at us. Our bags were half packed; the next morning I'd strip the bed, wash the sheets, defrost the freezer and scrub down the remainder of the living spaces on the boat, while Marike stowed lines and investigated the persistent and worrying flow of water over the top of the rudder, among dozens of other vital details. Cushions were clean and stacked in the salon, bedding and blankets bagged, charts rolled up, guidebooks put away. And just like that, the journey, which had unfolded gradually across time and space, embedding landscapes and experiences in our flesh and memories for months, rumpled closed; its urgencies began to dissipate.

Rising tide. Hakai Luxvabalis Recreation Area, Queen Charlotte Sound

Did it happen? Of course it did--finally, we'd made it to Haida Gwaii and back--but the marks the voyage left on our bodies, the habits of vigilance and care that it instilled in the rhythm of our days, had begun to disperse.  Before long we would be embedded in the life of the land again, unconscious of each fluctuation in barometric pressure, unconcerned about the exact times of the tides or the force and direction of the wind. Before long we'd be in another geography, on another coast, in our house. Then the question in the middle of the night would no longer be 'how strong is the wind? or 'does the anchor hold?' but something more diffuse and existential: 'who am I; where am I; and what must I do that matters next?' 

A lengthy and demanding voyage relieves us of such questions in many ways by giving us a trajectory and many clear parameters: the goal each day is to make good enough judgments about when, where and how to go a certain distance, that we may arrive safely. The consequences of failing to do this are fairly immediate and significant. Why one goes is not at issue: the meaning of life is to be alive and to stay alive, to become a resonating body, attuned to the wind and waves, other creatures, the landscape, the tides, and to the sounds of the boat. You ask, 'did we make the right call there?' 'is the raw water pump working?' not 'who am I and why do I exist?' You move from chart to chart, asking how best to get from here to there; such efforts, for the time one makes them, seem to preclude the feeling that one has gone astray--above all these days, for thanks to the extreme precision of Global Positioning Systems, it is almost never necessary, while underway, to puzzle out painstakingly where you are. 

Fog lifts and smoke remains. Entering Johnstone Sound from Blackney Passage.

But back on land, reinserted (however fitfully) into the news cycle and various pressing human concerns as we attend to the circuitry--the communications, the appliances, the vehicles, the yard work and habits of cleanliness and order--that sustains our carbon-rich lives, the absence of charts, of an evident trajectory across the repetitions that structure each day, makes existence itself feel heavy, tenuous, puzzling.  Without a map to mark the way, questions about the meaning of life surface: "why am I doing what I am doing? Is it worth it? What am I building as we move from day to day?" Bare existence seems never enough.

And it isn't--not for anyone, and certainly not as a meaningful narrative about living. Elaboration is crucial. So too, a sense of direction. Somehow, always, we want the sense and unfolding self-evidence of the journey, even if that can only be played, on the one hand, as risk, and on the other, as retrospection.

Stars spangle the night sky and a thick dew settles over every surface. Sometime in the day to come, it will rain and we will sit indoors at our computers, writing, searching, replying, seeking contact, affirmation, revelation. But for now, to look out at the Milky Way just might be enough. The dog curls at my feet. I drink a glass of water and go back to bed.  

Grey light of early morning rises, blotting out the stars. I know that another night soon, I'll be up again to weigh the anchor of my soul, and find it wanting.

Carved cedar mortuary pole returns to the earth, K'uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), Haida Gwaii.

All photographs were taken in British Columbia during the course of a voyage to Haida Gwaii aboard Quoddy's Run (June 3-20 August 2017).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Today I will different

You wake, you say
today will be different, today
I will do what I do what I must what I will
today I will          efficient        today
tasks completed      today       organized    today
my desk in order.
Today I will          different.
Do today as if some other un-waylaid by wind
or whim or want.  Someone of will, not wanton
wondering. What song will you sing then when
samba flings you circumsolar when
lightslant leaps across your foot when
urgency, like sucking sand, slips seaward and
beckons you to swim?

This poem was written for my friend, Gary Markle; I've rewritten it for Poem in Your Pocket day.
The photo is of a cardon cactus blooming near Salinas Bay, on Isla Carmen, Baja California Sud, Mexico in early April 2017. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How beautiful the snow blasted world

Snow falls quietly at twilight
gathering flakes whisper as they hit the window

How beautiful the snow blasted world. 

After dinner the snow stops falling and the dog and I go out to walk the territory. The moon glows faintly behind a scrim of clouds; clumps of snow cling to every branch and bush and the tops of the flattened grasses.  The apple trees thrust their branches at the sky like so many gnarled and knobby fists; there's a gaping hole where the barn door has blown off--better call for help to fix that one. 

We circle the gardens, step through the weeds to the pond's edge, where a fallen tree covered in snow casts strange shadows on the ice.  No footprints but ours anywhere to be seen. 

We walk along the dyke at the sea edge, each rose hip a huge ball of snow on a spindly branch. There's just enough wind that we can hear the water ripping and rushing into the shore and out again.

The wind is biting. It nips my cheek, hurries the dog to the door, slips through the stitching in my gloves to freeze my fingers. But I'm not ready to go in yet.

Clouds scud across the sky.  I look out over the grey water towards the islands, invisible in the darkness, then turn to scrape off the cars and clear the drive in front of the garage, savouring the sharpness of the air, stamping my feet to keep them warm.  Why must every pair of boots leak? Time to goop them up again.

I am remembering one night when I was about nine. The snow had been falling all evening. The streets were quiet and huge drifts covered the yard.  My siblings and I were sure that when our mother came into the room, she was going to tell us to get ready for bed. It's time, she said, pausing as we started to moan, then all in a rush--to get your coats on and go play in the snow! Shrieking with delight, we tumbled out into the darkness and the drifts, the world magical and thick with surprise and permission. 

It wasn't until I moved to Montreal and learned to cross-country ski twenty years after that--and more than twenty years ago--setting out across the fields of the Chateauguay Valley beneath a full moon, that falling snow occasioned such delight and anticipation again. But now it does.  

I watch the snow mount up higher and higher and hope the thermometer drops, rather than rises, so that I can ski across the bog, over top of the little lakes and streams, the sheepskill and the insect-eating pitcher plants onto the bushy ledges where the coyotes circle and sing.  There, I'll clamber up to a point where I can stand and look out at the sea rolling unimpeded over the horizon; from there, it rolls all the way to Spain. 

I can only ever get to that place on skis, when the bog is frozen and overlaid with deep snow.  How glorious it will be if that's what tomorrow brings.

Photos taken 3 January 2017 in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The wheels of the overturned wreck still spinning

(On negative capability)

The wheels of the overturned wreck
still spinning--

I am having trouble seeing how--
some lines trip, now they blare

my head my eye
an old tv, giving up the ghost.

Before horror,  everything.
Beyond horror, nothing.

O scow or barge loose--
should safely be moored. But people, those
people who have power in them?

I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--
at least to hear
in the manner of poetry.

Working notes

The second and third stanzas of this poem are taken from a journal entry trying to account for my experience of these last two days, as the reality of a Trump presidency in the US begins to sink in; the rest are citations and modifications of some writings of American poet George Oppen, who fled, with his wife and daughter to Mexico during the early 1950s after being repeatedly harassed by the FBI for his radical politics. Oppen is celebrated as a poet of "negative capability"--Keats' term for a poet who builds work from the capacity to ask questions and to reside in "uncertainty, mystery and doubt," rather than foreclosure or a drive to a preconceived end. For Oppen, and perhaps for all of us, ethics emerges from such confrontations with what seem to us to be situations of crisis.  How do we describe and respond fulsomely to our histories, and to the events that unfold around, before, because of and despite us? Such activities take time, and often, in a crisis, that's exactly what we're sure we do not have. Nevertheless, to take the time to try to think, to hear and to see, in and despite our various states of blindness, deafness and panic, is our truest calling, and something like prayer.

Those lines that begin "the wheels of the overturned wreck..." are taken from Oppen's poem "Route," which recounts his experience, in 1925, of being responsible for a fatal crash. Drunk, and at the wheel, he lost control of his vehicle. I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--" also reworks a portion of that poem, which is found in New Collected Poems (2002). (I write: "I don't mean to despair, I mean if we do not--/at least to hear/ in the manner of poetry;" Oppen wrote: "I don't mean he despairs, I mean if he does not/ He sees in the manner of poetry.")

"Before horror..." and "O scow or barge loose..." are lifted from Oppen's "Daybook 1," working notes that seem to have been written between 1963 and 1964, after the Oppens had returned to the US. (Stephen Cope, ed., George Open: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 58. In this section, Oppen muses on the latent potential of those who approach situations as bystanders, rather than actors.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Incidents in a Life (Book I--Abridged Version)

 The shadow play, through dirty windows, of morning light on a basement wall

Book I Things Do Happen

(Abridged Version)

--Chapter 0--

(opens in shadows)

What went on before I was or did.

--Chapter 1--

(something flickering)

And then I was born.

--Chapter 2--

(there might be light)

What went on that I can hardly remember.

--Chapter 3--

(certain shapes appear)

I might have learned to read.

--Chapter 4--

(lines, delineations)

Writing doesn't come easily; I'd rather draw a tree.

--Chapter 5--

(a trajectory perhaps)

Things go on happening that I'd like to report; things go on that I'd rather forget.

--Chapter 6--

(the road runs on)

Sometimes, memory fails me, and this, too, becomes something I fear.

--Chapter 7--

(the cliff edge)

Things neglected; things left to happen.

--Chapter 8--

(pebbles scrabble over the edge)

I know I'll die but I'm not dead yet.