Monthly Archives: May 2009

I have been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Collected Stories for my next meeting with Tom Able, and I came across one of those beautiful long sentences that I love, only this one is so long that I was not at first sure what to do with it.  It occurs in a story called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship”, or rather, to be more accurate, it comprises the entirety of the story, from first word to last, something like six pages of text in my edition.  I will not impose the entirety of the sentence on you, but here is the opening section.  You will have to find your own copy of the story to find how it concludes.

“Now they’re going to see who I am, he said to himself in his strong new man’s voice, many years after he had first seen the huge ocean liner without lights and without any sound which passed by the village one night like a great uninhabited palace, longer than the whole village and much taller than the steeple of the church , and sailed by in the darkness toward the colonial city on the other side of the bay that had been fortified against buccaneers, with its old slave port and the rotating light, whose gloomy beams transfigured the village into a lunar encampment of glowing houses and streets of volcanic deserts every fifteen seconds, and even though at that time he’d been a boy without a strong man’s voice but with his mother’s permission to stay very late on the beach to listen to the wind’s night harps, he could still remember, as if still seeing it, how the liner would disappear when the light of the beacon struck its side and how it would reappear when the light had passed, so that it was an intermittent ship sailing along, appearing and disappearing, toward the mouth of the bay, groping its way like a sleepwalker for the buoys that marked the harbor channel until something must have gone wrong with the compass needle, because it headed toward the shoals, ran aground, broke up, and sank without a single sound, even though a collision against the reefs like that should have produced a crash of metal and the explosion of engines that would have frozen with fright the soundest sleeping dragons in the prehistory of the prehistoric jungle that began with the last streets of the village and ended on the other side of the world, so that he himself thought that it was a dream, especially the next day, when he saw the radiant fishbowl of the bay, the disorder of the colors of the Negro shacks on the hills above the harbor, the schooners of the smugglers from the Guianas loading their cargoes of innocent parrots whose craws were full of diamonds…”

My friend James Shelley has just recently posted on how community gardening has given him an appreciation of the role played by fertility dieties in agriculural societies.  Though anthropology is not exactly my area of expertise, and though I am wary of drawing conclusions from anthropological generalizations in any case, I think that there is something significant in the relation that he is recognizing between the physical labour of farming and spiritual practice of religion.  In fact, I am inclined to extend this relation to other aspects of the home as well, to cooking, to building, to eating, to storytelling, to sewing, to all the activities that should form a spiritual practise for us but often do not.  It seems to me that as we engage in these things more fully, as we participate in them more intimately, we begin to understand the spiritual significance that these things once had.

As James recognizes, it is only in our affluent society that we can afford to be separated from these things, by technology, by the labour of others, by space and by time, only in this kind of society that we can seriously believe that the activities of the home and garden are not in fact spiritual in nature.  It is only because of this affluence that we become subject to the illusion that these things are merely physical and mundane.

To use the language of classical mythology, there can be no dryads so long as trees are merely for shading our patio sets, no nyads so long as rivers are merely for feeding ducks.  There can be no Pomona when the garden is just one more way to impress the neighbours, no Lares or Penates when the house is just the place where I sleep between work and amusement.

The local gods and godesses only appear when we become concerned with them, when we begin to love the trees and the rivers, the garden and the home. When I grow the tree from seed or from cutting, when I nurse the tree from a sapling, when I eat of its fruit and sleep in its shade, when I watch it grow year by year, then I discover that a spirit inhabits the dance of its branches.  When I wade in the water of the river, when I clean garbage from it with my own hands, when I watch the tadpoles and the minnows increase as the water grows cleaner, then I discover that a god stirs its waters.  When I plant what feeds me, build what shelters me, cook what nourishes me, sew what clothes me, then, and perhaps only then, I discover the gods of home and garden, the little deities that make the work of the home and the garden into a spiritual practise.

Red Currants were among the plants that I tried to grow from seed this past spring, and they were also among those that entirely failed to germinate.  I was disappointed because they are an edible plant that will tolerate my Black Walnut trees, and they are quite attractive besides.

Someone told me that I could propagate Red Currants merely by clipping stalks and then planting them eight or ten inches into the dirt.  I disbelieved, but I tried it anyway.  The stalks have been sitting there for several weeks now, so I checked them yesterday.  Much to my amazement, two if them are indeed producing leaves, though they will obviously not bear any fruit this year.

I was so excited that I went back to the parent bush to see if there were other likely candidates for planting in this way.  I thought it would be interesting to experiment with how late I could plant these cuttings successfully.  As I was looking through the bush, however, I noticed that some of the lower stalks had become covered with earth and mulch, so I went to uncover them, only to realize that they also had rooted.

I went and got my little garden spade to transplant the new seedlings, and I was just starting to dig when I made a third discovery: there, poking up from the mulch, were perhaps fifteen or twenty Red Currant seedlings that had germinated without any help from me at all.  I had been under the impression that the seeds needed to pass through the intestinal system of a bird in order to germinate, but there seemed to be too many of the seedlings too close to the parent bush for this to be the case.  Nevertheless, there they were.

So, though I had feared that I would have no new Red Currants at all, I now have two successful cuttings, two successful rootings, and twenty odd successful seedlings.  My pleasure is inordinate.

My friends Mike Butler and Lauren Anderson were over yesterday afternoon, and in the course of the conversation Lauren mentioned that she had always wanted do run a used bookstore.  She knows, of course, that there is little money in this, especially since she would refuse to stock the kind of trash fiction that is the primary sustenance of these stores.  I mentioned to her that I have long had a similarly inefficient business model in mind, one where I would only sell things that interest me particularly.

As I was saying this, it occurred to me that what Lauren and I really want to do is to reverse the standard business model by taking literally the idea of going into business for ourselves.  Most businesses, of course, are not in business for themselves.  They are in business for their customers, at least to the extent that they need to provide what their customers want in order to make any money.  They are not in business for themselves.  They are in business for other people in order to make money for themselves.  If they could afford really to be in business for themselves, they would likely have very different businesses than they do.

By way of example, here is what my business model would be:

I would sell books and films and music, whether new or used, and I would loan these things also, maybe for a minimal fee.  I would sell coffee and tea and preserves and cheese.  I would sell beer and wine and scotch and pipe tobacco.  I would sell seeds.  I would also have film screenings and canning bees and scotch tastings and book readings.  Some nights I would also be a restaurant, but only now and again, when I felt like it, and the menu would only be what I wanted to cook that evening.  My hours would be irregular in the extreme, but customers could always come by the house and ask for the store to be opened if they needed something in an emergency.  There would be comfortable chairs and a bar, but  there would be no televisions or wireless internet.

I would not be in the business of supplying either necessities or desires.  I would not be in the business of enabling either amusement or labour.  I would not be in a business where the customer was always or even often right.  I would not be in the business of efficieny or profit.  I would be in the business of sharing the things that I love.  I would be in business for myself.

My brother Andrew began a music review blog called Indie Scene about a month ago, but then he promptly went on tour with his band The Yage Letters.  Now that he has returned and has begun posting again, I thought it might be an opportune time for me to share what he will be doing.

Now, before I get too far, the title of my post perhaps needs some clarification.  Andrew will not be reviewing only progressive music, as the title might seem to imply. He will not even be reviewing music from an exclusively progressive perspective.  His own music and his own tastes, however, have decidedly progressive elements to them, and this provides much of the tone for his reviewing.

For those who are not quite familiar with the idea of progressive music, and I confess that I am certainly no expert myself, it is an approach to music, encompassing several genres, that contests the forms that have come to dominate almost every musical style in our popular culture.  These popular forms include a song length that is short enough to suit radio play, a chorus-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure, a musical hook that occurs in the first few seconds of the song, a production style that reduces bass and percussion to filler sound, and other similarly standard elements.

Progressive music contests these forms in several ways, including a song length that may be quite extended, a structure that employs complex musical progressions that build to a musical climax, several interrelated musical themes that are developed simultaneously, an emphasis on the musical role of all of the instruments in a band, an approach to production that alters the tone of the instruments to suit a particular composition, a fascination with layered and textured sounds, an attention to the technicalities of percussion on all instruments that in some cases approaches the purely mathematical, and various other techniques also.  It is these formal questions that very often dominate the ways that Andrew reviews an album or a band.

Because of his own musical interests, the albums and bands he reviews will mostly be independent, and they will frequently be from the spectrum of styles that are lumped under the label of metal.  For those of you who are immediately imagining the worst that pop-metal has to offer, I can assure you that this will not mean a regular tour through the top forty.  Andrew’s interests are, as I said, largely with independent music, and he will be reviewing local Guelph bands when he can, so his subjects will not often be the mass-produced bands that make up our popular soundscape.

So, have a read.  You just might be entertained.

It has been some time now since we screened Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze at the last Dinner and a Doc.  I had a fair amount that I wanted to write about the film, but I never seemed to find enough consecutive minutes to do this writing.  So, rather than leave it waiting any longer, I will just share a single image from the film and leave the rest for another occasion.

The image that I found most intriguing was a shot of a sandal floating upside down on the river.  In the dry centre of the sandal’s sole is a piece of food, a vegetable of some sort, and it is surrounded by ants, which are running back and forth between the food and the wet edges of the shoe.  They are surrounded on every side by water.  They must choose whether to float on the river until they are baked by the sun or to risk the water and drown.

This shot means on multiple levels, of course.  It allegorizes our limited planet with its limited resources and our seemingly unlimited demands.  It represents the way that the rising river has carried people away from their homes, has forced them to move or to drown.  It parallels the earlier shot where the female protagonist’s home is gradually surrounded and then engulfed by the river.   It symbolizes the tour boats on which this young girl is trying to make her living, where she serves rich tourists as they sail over the fields that her parents had once farmed.

I also wonder, however, whether this last level of meaning might be doubling as a commentary on the tourists themselves.  Perhaps, in one sense at least, the ants  represent, not the Chinese workers trapped by the repercussions of the flood, but the foreign tourists trapped by the assumptions of their wealth and culture and privilege.  Perhaps they are ones who are floating on the river, eating blithely from the buffet, unaware of the predicament that their consumption is creating.  I am both amused and disconcerted by this possibility.

I do not often remember my dreams, not unless I am woken suddenly from a deep sleep, like last night, when some Victoria Day revelry startled me from my dream and left me drifting in its curious emotion for several minutes.  The dream has been clinging to me all day, vivid and intangible as only dreams are, so I write this as a kind of exorcism.  Feel free to psychoanalyse as you please.

I am descending through what must be water, but it is thicker than water, and it is divided into layers, greens and blues and greys laid atop one another. I am breathing this water, but it is thick in my lungs. I am not struggling to breath, but my breathing is full and heavy.

As I approach the bottom, I am surrounded suddenly by a forest of seaweed, leafy, with long trailing fronds.  There is no animal life.  I am entirely alone among the vine-like plants.  They are grasping at me, not to entangle me, but to caress me, though their touch is clumsy, and I am moving slowly through them.  I am feeling the sand on my feet, and it is clean.  There is no muck or debris, just sand under my feet and leaves clinging to my body.

Then through the weed, a flight of golden stairs appears.  Each step is broader than I can see in each direction, and each is tall enough that I am using my hands to climb them.  As I climb, though, they become narrower and shorter, so that I now see their edges on either side, and I am climbing them with my feet only, as they taper to a pyramid above me.

As soon as I see the peak of the pyramid, I am standing on it, and there is a golden casket, the size of a coffin, perfectly rectangular.  I open it, and I am suddenly full of the weight of the lid, as I slide it to the side.

Inside are two dolls.  Their faces and hands are unpainted clay, and their cloths are tailored from plain burlap.  When I pick them up, they begin moving.  Their eyes open and their mouths move, as though they are speaking, but the thickness of the water keeps me from hearing them.  Their small hands grasp my fingers, and they cling to me, almost in desperation, but I cannot understand what it is that they want from me.

Then I wake.

I have not posted in some time because I have been at a seminar in Toronto, which has made for some long days.  When I go to Toronto, which I do only under compulsion, I leave very early to avoid the traffic.  I prefer to spend an extra hour or so in a cafe once I have arrived rather than spend even an extra fifteen minutes on the highway.  So, for the last three mornings, I have had the chance to write for more than an hour without interruption. It almost made the commute worth while.

Most of what I wrote was for other tasks that I need to accomplish, but I did take the time to write some poetry, which is one of the things that gives me much pleasure. Though I would not call myself a poet, and though I am almost always dissatisfied with what I write, I revel in the writing of poetry nevertheless. The piece that follows is the one that embarrasses me least of those I wrote these past few days.

The photographs are level,
though the wainscotting is askew,
afloat on the wall.
Its straightness is immovable.
When all else melts,
Pictures hang like this,
on the void,
like hard-edged moons,
like cornered memories,
exactly so,
petrified in the solid air,
for everything they touch is stone.

I do not often just relate events as they happen to me.  I am less interested, usually, in what has happened than in what these happenings mean.  I do not write to capture the events in my life.  I write to relate the meanings of my life.  This is even one of the ways that I would define the function of writing.

However, I offer the following events without any analysis or commentary.  Let them be what they are.

The Mayapple that I planted last year has sprouted.  It was a gift from Bob Brown, and I planted it immediately before leaving on vacation last summer.  It was crisply brown by the time I returned, and I thought that I had killed it, but it has emerged as healthy as when it was first planted.

The Trilliums that I was forced to transplant last fall are also up and blooming.  They have even multiplied.  They are an exception to my edible principle, because they are native to this area, and because they are my provincial flower, and because they are beautiful in my memory.

Andrew Teale has given me a large Elderberry cutting, and it is now planted beneath my Walnut trees, which it is supposed to tolerate.  It is growing well.

Paul Wismer has given me some Strawberry plants, and they will be planted in the sideyard beside the Peonies that Willie loved so much.

My neighbour down the road has given me a currant bush.  It has not yet flowered, so we are not sure what kind it is yet, but any sort of currant will be welcome.

I discovered a bee hive in the rocky area that lies between the backyards of the neighbouring houses, and the bees are busy at the just opening blossoms of my Apple trees.

I do not think that these things would benefit from anything that I might say about them.

Some of you may remember the ethical dilemma that goutweed posed for me last year, where I ended up compromising my organic principle in order to make my yard into something other than a goutweed farm.  I am now discovering, however, that even herbicide is not capable of eradicating goutweed completely.  Here and there, poking through the mulch or creeping up from around rocks and shrubs, those distinctive little leaves are beginning to emerge in my garden.

I was lamenting about this to a neighbourhood woman this morning.  She is an older but not elderly woman, retired, and she was taking her daily walk past our house.  She stopped to chat, as she does when anyone is out in their yard, and I explained to her about my goutweed woes.  Her reply took some time.  She never speaks quickly, and she has a deliberate way of laying a broad foundation for anything she is going to say, but her point was essentially this:  Goutweed is something that you fight but not something that you beat.

She told me that she had at one point actually planted goutweed in her yard, the variegated kind that has white edges to its green leaves.  She liked the look of it, and it was a fabulous groundcover that was tolerant of almost any conditions, shade or sun, wet or dry.  She soon noticed, however, that it was attacking her lawn and choking out some of the smaller flowers.  She first tried just digging it back, but it always seemed to sprout worse than before.  She then tried spraying it, but it came back the next year, only without the variegation.  She tried everything, but in the end, she was reduced to digging it out by hand, every spring, wherever she found it.  She does this still.  She waits until there has been a heavy rain, like last night, and then she looks for where there are sprouts, digs around them, and tries gently to pull out as much of the root with it as she can.

She has been at this for something like fifteen years, she says, and this year she has only found two sprouts.  She is hopeful that she will find none next year, though she is unwilling to make any wagers.  When I showed her the extent of my former goutweed plantation, she apologised and guessed that I might be at it as long as she has been, but she then said something quite profound.  She said, “By the time it’s gone, you’ll have been fighting it for so long you’ll almost miss it.”

Suddenly, the whole goutweed problem was changed for me.  It ceased to be something that needed an immediate solution.  It became a quality, however disgareeable, of this place where I live.  I did not lose any of my desire to root it out, but I gained a kind of appreciation for what it was.  The task of fighting it, in that moment, become part of the labour of my home, part of the ethic of my home, something to be undertaken and even to be enjoyed, no matter how difficult, because it is bound up in the labour and the ethic of the home.  It became something, even, perhaps, though I do not yet see how, that I might miss when it is gone, fifteen years from now.