Finally, rain.

 

We’ve been away, dodging in and out of heat and smoke, mostly lucky. Just days before we left on August 1, we sent off the proofs for Creekstone Press’ latest book, Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en – Settler Relations in Smithers 1913 -1973 by Tyler McCreary. As we drive south, I imagine huge scrolls of paper (I grew up in a paper mill town and that’s where we’re headed), massive rollers turning, long blades slicing through the bleeds at the edges of some pages.

Smoke between Fraser Lake and Vanderhoof, fires north and south. Afternoon sun scorching the high rises along the Fraser River in New Westminster. The relief of a swim off Grief Point in Powell River, my 94-year old mother joining us.

The bright book cover printed and cut; a glossy skin protecting its images, the kind words on the back. The glue along the spine.

Our son’s wedding on his grandmother’s lawn, the smoke already rolling in to erase the islands just offshore, the mountains behind Courtenay. Hanging on for days.

When we finally head north again, we hear the book has been shipped. And, for the first time in a month, rain. The Fraser Valley wet. The Fraser Canyon, damp. Further north, back into the smoke. A pale blue haze shimmering in the distance.

Again, between Prince George and Burns Lake, brutal smoke. No rain here. Sore throat, irritated eyes and those poor residents have been inhaling this for weeks now.

Home and the books have arrived. Carton after carton of stories, analysis, old photos and maps. A great sigh of first relief, then pleasure.

The ground has sucked in its cheeks around the shrunken stems of fireweed, nettles, and cow parsnip.  Cottonwood leaves, open palms on the ground, scarred by the leaf miners’ sad stories. We walk up the Malkow Lookout trail, our footsteps puffing up clouds of dust. The cows watch us pass, their cow pies already flat plates, dry on the desiccated grass. A few asters in shaded spots, nothing else in bloom. The bush is loud with the hum of bees. Everything is speckled with aphids, shining with honeydew. Some leaves are shellacked, others sticky. And this, I find, is nectar for bees.

We hear chickadees, juncos and kinglets. See one flock of robins startled up out of the field. Five water bombers pass overhead, one, two, three, four, five. Heading toward Babine Lake.

The saskatoon berries are desiccated, the cranberries few, the wild raspberries hiding in the shade. Our own grass is sparse, soil showing through at the crest of every downhill slope.

 

 

 

And then, tonight. Standing outside in the suddenly early darkness. Finally. Rain.

 

 

 

 

 

Everything connects…

Creekstone Press

We are very proud to be celebrating Creekstone Press’s 20th anniversary this year. We began by publishing my book, Canyon Creek: A Script – a book about the eviction of a Witsuwit’en family from its homesite on the Telkwa Highroad in the 1920s. We’ve published about one book a year since then and we have two more in the works. Last year, Neil Sterritt’s Mapping My Way Home: A Gitxsan History – with local design and cartography – won the Roderick Haig-Brown regional prize, a prize awarded for a book that contributes to the enjoyment and understanding of BC; it also took second prize at the BC Historical Federation’s book awards. And one of our other authors, Sarah de Leeuw, who wrote Front Lines: Portraits of Caregivers in Northern BC, is also up for an award for her collection of essays, Where it Hurts. Both Neil and Sarah have been guests on In the Shadow of the Mountain and their interviews can be accessed via CICK’s website.  Other guests who have been on the show nominated for prizes this year include Eden Robinson who’s been nominated for the Ethel Wilson fiction prize for Son of a Trickster; Theresa Kishkan nominated for the Hubert Evans non-fiction prize for Euclid’s Orchard & Other Essays. Our second book, Oar and Sail: An Odyssey of the West Coast by Kenneth Leighton, which was short-listed for a prize back in 2000 – is excerpted in Spindrift: A Canadian Book of the Sea, another short-listed book.

In the Shadow of the Mountain

While Creekstone Press continues its work, I’m ready to shift directions and leave In the Shadow of the Mountain. It’s been almost four years and over 50 shows and has given me a wonderful opportunity to connect with other writers, to give me both the motivation and excuse to just talk to other writers about writing. But it takes time away from my own writing, which each of my conversations on In the Shadow of the Mountain makes me miss even more.

I’d like to share some of thoughts about leaving.

Yesterday I broadcast my final edition of In the Shadow of the Mountain on Smithers Community Radio Thanks to the wonderful staff and volunteers at CICK 93.9 FM for helping out with the show and for all the other shows they make, the community events they present, and the community connections they foster. And thanks, as well, to Interior Stationery and Books/Speedee Interior Stationery and Books/Speedee Mills and Books on Smithers’ Main Street – for sponsoring the show and for keeping us in good reads. Bravo!

I was especially pleased that my final guest for In the Shadow of the Mountain was Donna Kane, a writer from the Peace River country, Rolla to be exact. Donna was a guest on the show many times – she did a regular writing gossip column in its first year and I also did a show with her about her chapbook Pioneer 10: I Hear You.  She’s published two books of poetry, organized innumerable poetry readings and writers’ camps, including several in the Muskwa Kechika where her husband, photographer Wayne Sawchuk, takes summer-long horse trips every year in order to draw attention to some of the last remaining wilderness in the Northern Rockies. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of weeks at an artists camp there a few  years ago and created a series of images and poems called The Muskwa-Kechika Fire Poems.

It’s no surprise that Donna’s latest book is called The Summer of the Horse. What surprised me is that it’s not poetry, but rather a memoir of sorts. It documents the day she and Wayne met at a book fair, each of them having grown up almost next door to each other without ever meeting, each in long term relationships; they are instantly drawn each other. In the book, Donna documents the changes their relationship precipitated, the pain and uncertainty it caused, and the questions it led her to explore: the ways in which our thoughts, our observations and our actions are inextricably connected. To quote poet Lorna Crozier, “It’s a love story, not only between a remarkable man and an equally remarkable woman, but between this same woman and horses, this same woman and the BC wilderness. There is such fine thinking between these pages that could only have been written by a poet/philosopher. By someone who opens her mind and body to the beauties and sorrows that surround her and who finds the words to knot everything together with such finesse they’ll never come apart.”

 

 

A wonderful community

group with sheila

Shafted: A Mystery launch at the Smithers Art Gallery, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014

In his song, Well May the World Go, Pete Seeger says, “Find a part of the world that you really like and stick to it.” Sometimes it’s tempting to move south, to go back to the coast, to start somewhere completely new. But not last Friday evening when we gathered to celebrate the launch of my latest book, Shafted: A Mystery.

It was so warm, we opened every window and door in the art gallery. Forests to the south and east were on fire and the main highway was closed. People were stocking up on gas and groceries, worried about cell phone service and hydro lines.

When the back country is burning, setting out chairs for a book launch feels frivolous. As people walk out into the warm evening, the sky tinged with smoke, they are worried about the mountain goats living on the mountain that’s on fire, the cattle that graze in the bush, the travellers who can’t get home. We all know someone who’s fighting the spread of flames through the dead pines: dispatching, dropping fire retardant, struggling through the smoke, hauling hoses, cutting firebreaks. People are talking about it as they come in the door. A few drops of rain splatter the sidewalk and we all feel hopeful.

Friends are the first to arrive, bringing plates of beautiful snacks. Karen sets out cherry tarts made with her own cherries; Tonja has made amazing pinwheel sandwiches; Vigil has a dish of bruschetta; Kim brings cinnamon bread. Gail has food and flowers. Pat, as always, takes pictures. A bright punch fills a glass bowl and soon people are drinking and eating and visiting. Dorothy’s cello thrums deep notes below the voices.

perry and dorothy

Dorothy Giesbrecht and Perry Rath

A book launch in a town where you’ve lived for years, a town where the novel you’re launching is set, and a town with gardens full of food and flowers, is a wonderful thing. I love the conversations with people as they bring me books to sign: some are close friends, some are acquaintances I’ve known since I moved here, some are people I haven’t talked to in years. Newcomers. Visitors.

sheila and the haines

Peter Haines, Sheila, and Paulie Haines

richard, mike and harry 1

Mike Shervill, Richard Overstall and Harry Kruisselbrink

It’s wonderful to read aloud something you’ve written in solitude, to hear people fall silent, become attentive, enter into a story and laugh in recognition of a time, a place, a feeling that is home. It is wonderful to be able thank the people who helped bring the book together in a room filled with their friends and acquaintances.

But what goes deeper than that is the sound of a room full of people on a Friday evening telling each other their own stories, sharing their news, making plans, offering to help, making suggestions, hugging and laughing—in other words, doing many of the things that knit a community together.

Writers want their work to contain something of the universal, we want it to speak to people who don’t know us or where we live. But it is a great privilege to have created a sense of a place, a time, and people that in some small way reflect a community back to itself, a community you call home.

sheila and lynn

Sheila Peters and Lynn Shervill

 

We talk as we wash the glasses, sweep the floor and pack away the tables and chairs. These are good friends who have done worked together for years. In small towns, you have to create the events you want to attend. We have become skilled at this, we move in and out of groups that form and dissolve around issues, creative processes and political action, sometimes all at once. We ebb and flow with and among each other.

 

 

We consider ourselves lucky. We ‘ve found a place we love and we’re sticking with it.

Nuchatlitz

We recently stayed in a cabin on a small unnamed island near Nuchatlitz, a former Nuchatlaht community off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The small island is privately owned by twelve people, but most of the surrounding area is either reserve or provincial park. We were there to kayak, but we were also visiting a place we’d read about. In 2001, our publishing company, Creekstone Press, reprinted John Gibson’s A Small and Charming World, a book first published in 1972 that told of Gibson’s time as a social worker in Smithers and later in Campbell River. The book’s last chapter contains a particularly poignant reference to Nuchatlitz.  At one time about 3000 people lived in the area, but when he flew in to pick up a little girl going to school in Campbell River, only five houses were occupied. When we were there, one unoccupied house remained and its last occupant, Lily Michael, was buried in the overgrown cemetery across the inlet. We so often think of these isolated places as wilderness, but they have been occupied for centuries, and contain many stories. Which is why writers look for places like this.

Virginia Woolf told us we needed a room of our own. In the Sea Watch cabin in Nuchatlitz, also known as Witt’s End, there are many rooms, each lined with books. Among those books, I found a collection of essays by E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner, in which he contrasts his writing practice to that of a contemporary who sits down at home where his “privacy is guarded” and works in an orderly and diligent manner to accomplish a great deal. White says that his “professional life has been a long, shameless exercise in avoidance.” His home is, he says, “designed for the maximum of interruption,” his office the place he never is. How can a writer not love E.B. White? How can a writer not love Witt’s End?

While each room has a table inviting the writer to sit down with a notebook, out the windows are sea otters, cedars, rhododendrons, driftwood installations, and a greedy young crow eating the salal berries growing out of one of those installations. And the books. Downstairs, Chinese literature, the classics, fiction, history, the restoration plays. Bill Kinsella, Margaret  Atwood, Virgil, A Dream of Red Mansions.

In the kitchen, beside the binoculars on the windowsill, the plant/bird/seashore/animal guidebooks.

You must climb the steep stairs to find the poets, ranged along the floor in a room with windows on three sides and skylights, a bed tucked into a dormer, the chimney from the wood stove below bringing warmth into its spaciousness. And a table, of course.

I brought a collection of Bruce Chatwin’s work along and, while it started well enough, seemed to become one of those publications designed to plump the coffers of his estate – some work would have been better left “unpublished or neglected.” In it he writes about the two towers where he writes well – one on the Welsh border and one in Tuscany. It is, he says, “a place where I have always worked clearheadedly and well, in winter and summer, by day or night – and the places you work well in are the places you love the most.”

Seawatch could become one of those places – and writer Paula Wild uses it for her own escapes and also runs writing retreats there. Shannon Bailey, the co-owner with Brian Witt, writes there too. She and Brian left Victoria (where she completed a Creative Writing degree at UVic) over a decade ago to live almost full time at Nuchatlitz. You really are a long way away from anywhere – an hour’s boat ride from Tahsis, which is about a three-hour drive from Campbell River.

You’d think it would be perfect. But the work to keep a place like Sea Watch running (solar energy, rain water cisterns, generators, boat maintenance and wild west coast weather) is, as White said, “designed for the maximum of interruption.” Like waiting for the right tides to put the sailboat up onto a neighbour’s makeshift dry-dock in order to scrape the barnacles off the hull, messy and physically demanding work, done in the dark, in the pouring rain. And anyone who’s lived in a place with only boat access knows the minutiae of hauling things up and down docks, in and out of boats, and offloading at a slippery low tide.

And then there are the distractions of all the artifacts the ocean offers up.  There are hundreds of installations in every available space, inside and out. Shells, skulls, feathers, tiny congregations in mossy corners, as well as the reminders of the many places Shannon and Brian have travelled.

The perfect retreat, I think, needs to be someone else’s tower – as Chatwin said. Where someone else is bringing in the groceries, doing the upkeep, weeding the gardens. Or, as I suggested to Shannon – a real winter. I always look forward to October here in Driftwood Canyon – dropping temperatures put a quick end to any silly notions about another crop of spinach, by November the snow covers all those projects that call for attention all spring and summer, and it’s dark so early and so late, you’re not distracted by the play of light on the trees. You leave the curtains open and stare out into the darkness, thinking.

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Thanks to  Dan Shervill for letting me use some of his photos.