August, 2009 Archive

Alone

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Those morbid reflections were interrupted by Jan’s suggestion we go on a hike this last morning of her stay.  She’d been gloomy about leaving without me to face family and political challenges alone in San Luis for several days, and I welcomed the idea of doing something before Juliets birthday party in the late afternoon.  It was a brilliant day and we agreed on trying out the Atrevida Loop, a nearby trail I’d never been on.  I carried the big pack again conditioning for the Nootka Hike.  The trail was gentle and soft, dark under the cover of large second growth forest that one could see through for long distances and punctuated by the odd hemlock branch or sword fern illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. Our isolation from one another gave way to easy conversation, free of ponderous repetition and anxious complaints, enlivened by the promise of making love that night.

A slight steady whooshing sound interrupts these jottings, perhaps a truck approaching down on the highway, but then growing closer and recognizable as rainfall on the roof.  The drops not visible through the little window on my left, but showing on the deck and then audible as such on the kitchen skylight.  A golden patch on the moss and white lines on the eastern side of the tree trunks is cast by the low sun. The hum on the roof recedes, replaced by the buzz of the fridge.

At times we were quiet, just walking together, each absorbed in wonder at the hushed vitality of the world through which we traipsed; the duff-covered trail, the roots protruding from moss and gripping the broken rock, the ragged walls of interlocked root and soil and rock becoming soil formed by upended platforms at the base of windfalls, the furrowed bark of fir trunks splitting by rapid growth from inside, in fluted columns thrusting the green canopy hundreds of feet into the sky, the sour-sweet fragrance of damp alder leaves, the spongy feel of rotten wood underfoot, dropped there in chunks when the snag succumbs to gravity and decomposition–all summoning memories of living on the farm in the midst of this burgeoning growth and decay.

The trail was marked by iridescent red diamonds nailed at eye height on trees by Eagle and his friendly crew and also by an unsettling array of surveyors tape and spray paint marks suggesting that before long this quiet self-sustaining ecosystem will once again be denuded by chainsaw and ravaged by bulldozer, and that the trees now standing between the huge stumps of the original old growth forest destroyed a hundred years ago will themselves be rendered to stumps and join their forbears protruding from piles of dry dead slash. Instead of making a loop, the trail we followed converged with the Sunshine Coast Trail which we agreed to follow northward for another half hour before heading back the way we came.  The forest here seemed older, the spaces between trees wider, the floor covered with recognizable old growth nursling trees that must have fallen before the first loggers came through. A short section of the trail passed by six living ancient firs saved by accident and the trail makers’ designs.  At 11:30 we stopped for lunch sitting on the soft bench of a moss-covered cedar, munched crackers and pesto and apple and talked of how evolution may or may not account for us and the world we were immersed in, cued by Jan’s reading of Jarrett Diamond,’s The Third Chimpanzee and my reading of The World Without Us.  The exercise and the damp air of the forest and the subdued light made her look beautiful.

Upon our return to Knoll House, we both took short naps.  Juliet called and asked that Jan come early to her 64th birthday party, and while she prepared devilled eggs, I went down the driveway across the highway and in one hour in the hot sun picked a gallon of blackberries puzzling about how evolutionary adaptation could account simultaneously for the perfumed and sugared attraction of the fruit and the painful repellent of the thorns.  Back up the hill, I cooked the berries with sugar, cinnamon and the pectin Jan had bought, sterilized jars and canned eight of them for gifts to take back to California.  I dropped her off at Juliet’s and headed down to Okeover for a swim.  The tide was way out and a large multigenerational Chinese family were digging clams as I threaded my way across barnacled rocks and shells thankful for my water shoes.

We were the earliest guests at the party, drinking beer and following the last rays of warm sun in Steve’s beautifully sculpted back patio, talking of their travels to India, of our projected trip to Japan, of our hike and of course of the old days.  Tai and Theo, Peter and Ronnie, came and joined the circle, he describing a brutal ascent of 19000 foot Mt. Kilimanjaro he had undertaken earlier this year while sick with a cold. Then Peter and Margaret, Dylan and Amanda and Sage and his little brother and Sherry and Barbara and Roger Langmaid with whom I talked about David Creek, her former husband, whom I hadn’t seen since  1975, and Pam Begbie, and new people, Jack and David, and then it was time to eat and then Jan drew me back to Knoll House at 8:30 before dessert or present opening for our appointment, and then our bodies returned to each other in their fresh and blooming youth.

Yesterday, the long anticipated separation date of August 24, Jan finished packing and we went to River City for breakfast and internet. I left her at the airport and headed back to the coffee house where I spent a couple of hours processing and loading pictures to Flickr. When through with that around noon, I felt a familiar sense of isolation and disorientation; my Siamese twin fell off, what hit me? I checked Craigslists for boats, but also personals—first and predictable tropism of separation from Jan—but nothing in P.R.  I knew I had shopping to do for the upcoming hiking trip, but felt incapable, just like retreating home and crawling into bed. I went to the terrible bakery on Joyce just to quell hunger and got a cold and nasty slice of pizza, which did provide a little bit of restoration, then drove down to River City books, where I couldn’t find a map of Nootka, then got back in the car drove down Marine and up Willingdon looking for other outfitters or health food stores, and slowly drove by a new place advertising adult entertainment and then drove back to River City where I ordered coffee and reopened my computer and got serious about making a shopping list.  This took close to an hour, but reoriented me to tasks and problem solving.  I went next door to the outfitters and spent a half an hour shopping for a rain parka, leching the 55 year old nervous sales clerk until I was turned off by her breath and by my own jowly and wrinkled image in the mirror. Then I drove back up to Quality Foods with my grocery list, realizing that there were only two days more before our early departure for the Island and I needed to get the job done now, and that it was already too late in the day to start the Prodigal summer writing project.  I spent a long time picking out dried fruits and nuts, and while gazing at the smoked salmon heard a voice saying “Don’t buy that its poison.”  It was Michael F. pushing a grocery cart.  I said I’d been planning to visit him this afternoon and tour his subdivision. He said fine.  After about another hour of shopping for the meal by meal backpacking, I picked up a cooked chicken and then drove to Michael’s and invited him for dinner. He led me down to the two chairs by his new pond fed by a bubbling artesian spring, the sunny weather now having given way to gray, and he threw food into it for the leaping many colored fish and waxed lyrical about the family of wood ducks that have taken up residence there. He spends at least an hour a day sitting here feeding the fish.

He drove me along his new roads, including the $300K stretch of Edith Road, out to the bluff above our old farm where he hopes to build his own house once having sold his lots and where we admired a grand view of the Strait and the islands.  Then we went back to his mobile home and he phoned a Vancouver Real Estate broker who will fly up to see the subdivision on the weekend.  I drove to Knoll House and prepared dinner and Michael showed up soon thereafter with another $30 bottle of wine.  We ate and drank and looked at old pictures and remembered old stories and newer ones and finished another bottle of wine and parted with hugs.

I washed the dishes and went to bed at 10:15 and woke up at 6:00 from a dream of running a camp where I couldn’t get the counselors or the kids under control and where I just wrecked a car we needed to transport stuff by pulling the doors out of alignment driving through the bush. I bathed, shaved, took my pills, made the bed, did stretches, meditated a long time, ate a bowl of cereal and realized that there was still a good deal of packing work and trash burning to do, and that simply keeping this journal most likely would be as much writing as I could accomplish today.  I’ve been at it for three hours.

3:30

Was it three or four hours that I wrote the previous entry? I did sort pills and clothes and camping gear and food and packed my backpack.  Along with snack breaks, that took another two or three hours.  While I usually just throw things into a pack and suitcase hoping for the best, this five day trip required that I take care not to bring too much weight but enough to avoid going hungry, wet or cold.  That meant deliberation about which thermarest to select, whether or not to put the sleeping bag in a dry bag, and do I bring one or two cans of tuna to liven up the couscous dinner. Having loaded up the pack, I burned trash and then evaded Darwinian literary studies by returning to Steven Pinker’s new book, The Stuff of Thought.  Thirty or so pages and a short nap later, I’ve prepared a cup of Earl Grey tea and returned to the computer, here to list my current options: 1) read and revise the morning’s writing 2) go on a trip to Ervington’s to retrieve my hat and flashdrive and swim at Okeover 3) find and hack a route from the moss trail to Krompocker road 4) finish cleaning up the mess on the bluff with the chainsaw 5) explore the property between the new section of the moss trail and the highway 6) play the recorder 7) read my Prodigal Summer notes. (4:45)

The World Without Us

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Waking up at dawn under an orange full moon above Savary in pure silence. Since we arrived, day before yesterday, smoke from the fires on Vancouver Island has hidden the mountains that normally create the beautiful horizon line.

Before the children and grandchildren arrive, there is time to read and a wealth of comfortable chairs and couches at Knoll House for the purpose. I’m halfway through a book that I bought on impulse at Powell’s in Portland on the way up here because I’d heard about it from several quarters: The World Without Us.  It places many of the events that cause me anxiety in a framework that both magnifies their horror and reduces their pain by turning them into enthralling catastrophe narratives. If humans were gone from New York and the pumps that keep the underground city from flooding stopped working, the water would fill the subways and rust the foundation piers of the skyscrapers.  Within a few decades the whole thing would have collapsed into a landscape of rubble covered with forest. Elephant herds would multiply in Africa, restoring jungle to grassland. Untended corrosion in the chemical plants along the Texas Louisiana coast would cause explosions and toxic spills that  eventually would be cleaned up by bacteria evolved to do the job.

Its good to be reading this in B.C. where keeping back the bush requires continuing human effort without which cars and homes and cleared land can be seen succumbing to the engulfing monster of natural reclamation—as heartless and inexorable in its way as loggers and bulldozers chewing up the woods.  Where Joe and I felled a dozen fifty-foot jackpines threatening the house last summer, the opening is now filled with brambles and dandelion-like weeds I started cutting yesterday. I can hardly wait to fire up the chainsaw to clear windfalls blocking the trails I’ve carved over the years.  Imagining the relatively short interval required to neutralize the growing impacts of humans on mother earth serves as an antidote to my fear that what Bill McKibben predicted 20 years ago as the End of Nature will soon be upon us.

Aesthetique du Mal

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

A review of To Speak, To Tell You, Sabine Sicaud 1913-1928
by Odile Ayral-Clause

Natives of poverty, children of malheur,
The gaiety of language is our seigneur.

Wallace Stevens

Odile Ayral-Clause is an emissary from the land of beauty in anguish.  With a voice both urgent and composed, she leads the reader to the lives and works of individuals who have extruded art from tragedy and pain. In her previous book, Camille Claudel, (Abrams 1990) Ayral-Clause delivered a definitive biographical and critical study of the person famous as the pupil and mistress of Auguste Rodin, but less known as a brilliant sculptor herself, one whose free spirit and talent were crushed by the ravages of mental illness and forcible incarceration in an insane asylum for thirty years by members of her own family.

In a new book, To speak, To Tell You, Ayral-Clause introduces Sabine Sicaud, a child-poet recognized during her own brief lifetime from1913-28 but largely forgotten since.  While Claudel lived to age 89 having spent many decades in joyless and unproductive isolation, Sicaud died at the age of 15 after a year of excruciating suffering brought on by a rare untreatable disease under the care of loving parents who fostered her creativity but couldn’t alleviate her torment.

To Speak, To Tell You? includes 50 of Sabine’s poems, in the original French and in face-en-face English  translation by Norman R. Shapiro, a distinguished scholar and translator, along with a 40 page introduction, explanatory notes, and annotated bibliography by Ayral-Clause.  The volume also contains numerous antique photographs of Sabine and of the family estate, La Solitude, that many of her poems make familiar.

The title Ayral-Clause chose for the book is part of a first line which concludes, “No I cant.” The line exemplifies the oscillations between extreme emotions shaping each poem and the collection as a whole. The poet reaches out to the reader to establish a connection, to beg for rescue, then senses the inexpressibility of her pain and takes some comfort from resentment and self-pity, which is itself undermined by self-irony, leading to another kind of relief in humor, detachment and equanimity.  On the way she shifts her appeal to a bird on a branch and a leaf on a tree, finding in the mute existence of other living beings some companionship and promise. (more…)