Sunday, May 31, 2015

Leaf, bloom, water

Wild strawberry blossoms

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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sun salutations don't make the sun emerge

Enya in bladderwrack with her stick

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

Fog snared spiderweb


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

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

All photos taken today in West Quoddy in the fog. 

Leaf captured fog

Claw Foot Ease Oh Cherries (a poetry recipe)

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

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

How to make pear (or any fruit) clafoutis

Preheat the oven to 400F.

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

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

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

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

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

Dolphins in the Sea of Cortez

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

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

Pelican hiding its catch from gulls

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

Gull surf fishing in La Ramada, Sea of Cortez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise, Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez

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

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

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

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

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

Along the boardwalk (malecon) in La Paz

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

La Paz harbourfront and malecon

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

North coast reflections, British Columbia

Friday, May 29, 2015


goose feather snared by a thorny wild rose stem

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

What's the news?

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

Anemone pulsatilla

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

June bug

Lichens grow on the porch chair

Fog obscures the islands

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

Ferns unfurl
Reflection in rain

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

violet in the rain and grass

How quickly
time passes. Midnight, in
a damp season

to help, no matter
your trouble)

pages ago
we sailed between
desert isles

sexual impotence
we fix all)

now violets
flock and scatter amid
greening grass

(envy or
headache or bad luck
or witchcraft)

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

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

now I curl
with dog and blanket
by the fire

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

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

scrounge bravely
before a Nova
Scotia spring

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

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

All the night flights to Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew brevity could be so hard?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tea steeped sunrise (inventing a flock of lunes)

Just before
dawn, rain. The peepers
stop singing.

Wan light seeps
through the window, shakes
me awake.

Cold air on
my toes. I toss logs
on the fire,

open blinds, set
water to boil. Tea
steeped sunrise,

loon calling.
How do they know how
soon the rain?

Notes: (inventing a flock of lunes) 

Anyone who knows much about loons, the birds, as opposed to lunes, the poetic form (more on that in a moment), knows that loons rarely flock; they tend to appear as loners. Still, we have sometimes seen them gather on the open water off of Quoddy, out among the islands, as the seals do. And in the summer now and then, we hear them playing call and response with the coyotes on the hill. The lune, on the other hand, a poetic form also known as "American Haiku," can be multiplied and assembled in what poet Craig Santos Perez calls "flocks of lunes." He stretches his out sideways, as if in flight; my lunes, on the other hand, float, as if isolated on the water, rather more like loons.  Here, in Nova Scotia, it is said that the loons' cries predict a change in weather: rain, or the end of rain. 

Typically, lunes come in two forms. One, invented by the poet Robert Kelly, consists of a 13 syllable verse, divided into three lines thus: 5 syllables/ 3 syllables/ 5 syllables. The other form, invented by poet Jack Collum, is composed of 13 words, divided similarly into three lines: 3 words/ 5 words/ 3 words.  While lying awake two nights ago, and thinking about Craig Santos Perez's flocks of lunes, (which work on the Kelly syllable system), I began to compose the poem above in my head. Perhaps because it was the middle of the night, I scrambled the organization of the syllables, and composed instead according to a schema that runs 3 syllables/ 5 syllables/ 3 syllables. When I realized my error, I tried out a number of revisions, but in the end, preferred the simplicity and spareness that my stripped down version of the lune gave me. Who says mistakes aren't generative? And why can't we invent novel forms of lunes? What is poetry for, if not such small, but sublime, pleasures?

Image note: The photograph is of the view from my front windows, overlooking West Quoddy Bay.