One of the great gifts of having studied literature is the number of poems I carry with me from memory. Yesterday, walking toward the cliffs at Dallas Road in Victoria, I was practically blinded by sunlight that had seemed so muted only days before (photo here).
Wow, I thought—just one month beyond the winter solstice, and the light is really changing. I thought of the first lines of one of my favorite poems, by Theodore Roethke, and it seemed so apt.
The light comes brighter from the east; the caw
Of restive crows is sharper on the ear.
A walker at the river's edge may hear
A cannon crack announce an early thaw.
Yes, the light does come brighter now. And in so many ways.
First, spring is on the way. That means so many more opportunities to explore this beautiful island in the months ahead.
Second, the United States will get considerably brighter once the scourge has been removed from the White House.
Third, I just finished the first draft of my second play. It’s not good enough yet, but it exists.
Fourth, I have gotten my first cruise assignment==not until 2022, but a sign that it looks as if that part of my life will resume.
Yes, the light comes brighter. I turn my face to greet it.
The first time I tried to explore Swan Lake in Victoria was a collection of mishaps. I thought I knew how to get there and spent about a half hour unintentionally touring several neighborhoods in Victoria. When I finally got there, I took the wrong path and dead-ended. By the time I was on the right path it was starting to rain, and the only washroom, which by that point I desperately needed, was in the Nature Center, locked up tight on Sundays.
I vowed to return, and I did so today, one week later, for a lovely amble around the perimeter of the lake. The name Swan Lake conjures up images of dancers in tutus, and of course there were none of those, but sadly no swans either. I had to settle for a number of very friendly ducks, and a variety of birds hopping and perching in the thickets along the path.
The sun hugs the horizon at the winter solstice this far north for the eight hours between sunrise and sunset, and even on a day free of rain, the light remains low all day. Perhaps it the drama of sky and shadow that sets the mood for thoughts about beginnings and ends and how, just as the Dao teaches, each contains the seed of the other.
Fall lasts a long time here, but at some unnoticed juncture it was over. The trees are bare now and their fallen leaves are brown with the rain that has left them limp and flattened on the ground. In the past I have found this mass of slippery, gluey detritus quite unappealing, but today my mind opened to a greater appreciation of the season one of my favorite poets Gerard Manley Hopkins described as the time when “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”
It is hard to square those exquisite, perfect words with something naturalists call “leaf litter” and gardeners give the quintessentially unpoetic name “mulch.” But it is only our species that needs words for it at all. For the tiny creatures that call it home, and for the plants that produced it and will use it again in a never ending cycle of transformations, it is simply what the moment offers before moving on to something else.
if I felt poetic today I might write an “Ode to Mulch,” to give it the honor it deserves. Instead, I will acknowledge that we exist in different realms, one in which I struggle to find meaning and to set it down in words, and the other, which just is. As Hopkins says in another poem, “these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” Of course it wouldn’t be poetry if it didn’t suggest more than one way of thinking about it. The beauty he describes in the poem couldn’t care less if any human being beholds it. But from the human perspective, we have all probably said a million times, when we just stop to watch and listen, “wow! I never noticed that before.”
And so it is with the wanwood that leafmeal lies. Now, at the solstice, at a time where time cracks open to allow rebirth, personal vows take on potency. Mine is to be a better beholder, starting quite literally with what is under my feet.
Tomorrow marks the end of my two weeks here in Emily Carr’s studio. I will move to more contemporary accommodations a few minutes away on the other side of her ( and now my) beloved Beacon Hill Park.
It has been an eventful two weeks, highlighted by finishing a fairly good draft of the first play of my new trilogy of one-act plays, EX3 (Emily Times Three), and a first pass at about half of the second play. All three take place in her studio, and I have had the unusual experience of actually being on the set as I write.
Of course, it isn’t “hers” anymore in many ways. The layout of the rooms has changed, and the clutter of her work environment, which also had to serve as the dining room for her boarders, and indoor residence of her many pets, is gone. Still the feel of the area where she painted is very real, and I have marveled that so many of her major paintings were propped up drying against these walls after being at first a blank canvas on an easel right where one stands today.
I think what I will remember most vividly, in part because I couldn’t take pictures and just have to burn it into my mind, is the attic. Peter Willis, whose grandmother bought the house long ago, and who now owns and manages it, gave me access to it while I was here.
Emily used to climb up a ladder and crawl through a tiny door that is still there close to the ceiling in the living room of her studio, but now, thankfully, there’s another entrance through a door in the hallway outside. From there, you ascend to find yourself in a place where her presence is still palpable.
There is a small room where Emily used to live when she was so broke she had to rent out her own rooms. It is only a few steps across, and under a sloping roof . The ceiling and walls are rough hewn lumber, as is the creaky floor. To one side there is a long crawl space going to the other end of the house, which would have been where she came in from the studio. There, in a space only about three feet high, she had her bed and space for her pet monkey, who left scratch marks in the wood. She would have had to crawl, even in her fifties and very overweight, to get to the small room in the attic I could access. There, she created what I am sure will be for me the most indelible memory of my time here.
Painted on the ceiling boards on each side of the steeply sloped roof are two eagles with their wings outspread to a length of about ten feet, the entire length of the room. They are painted in black in a design typical of the indigenous people of Vancouver Island. Below the eagles on both sides is a running border of red frogs also done in a typical indigenous style. I know archival photos exist of the eagles, but there are none I could find online, and I did honor my word that I would not take any. I did find this one of a single frog, so you can picture the style.
Tonight I made my last trip to the attic. I sat in the semi-darkness with the protecting power of the eagles overhead, letting thoughts about the many dimensions of time play in my mind. Emily has been dead for 75 years, yet her paintings live so vividly both in their material form and the eternal nature they capture. The eagles are in designs so ancient even the indigenous people don’t know their origins. Out the little window in the attic, Emily would have looked at fields and gardens where houses now stand, their Christmas lights twinkling in this ephemeral season. I left the attic tonight knowing that this was an ending, that I will most likely never be here again. Time as a river . Emily understood that well.
I talk to Emily a lot. I went to her grave yesterday on her 149th birthday,. I pass by a sculpture of her in the Inner Harbour regularly and stop to whisper a thing or two to her. But it is in her attic that I have felt her most.
I tell her I am trying to do justice to her. That though I have to invent my version of her, I am doing my best to hear her speak through the noise of my own voice, my own life, when I write. That I hope I get it right. That I wish I had known her. That every time I step into a forest I will bring her with me. And though she hasn’t told me so, I hope she is glad I am here.