Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moving Rocks

The weather has been unremittingly cool and damp for at least a week and a half, perhaps longer. Today while I was working outside moving rocks and cutting brush, the sun actually broke through the fog and cloud, or almost broke through, enough to cast the semblance of a shadow, enough to make you look up to see what it was. It was only for a minute or so, but it reminded me of an old Nova Scotia weather joke: What day is it when the sun shines after two days of rain? Monday, of course! And it reminded me of my old friend Andrew Smith, with whom Albro Hawkins and I travelled to summer school about thirty years ago, when we had another stretch of weather like this and the sun finally came out. Andrew nudged me then and said, in that lovely lilting Cape Breton accent of his, What is that strange light in the sky?

Yesterday it rained hard, so today when it didn’t I decided to get a few things done outside, a few of the innumerable tasks that lie in front of us. Our contractors have torn off the old deck and are framing the new one, which will extend over an area of flagstones, so it seemed like a good time to move the rocks out of their way because we will use them for our new walkway and a patio area. The biggest of them was the one that formed a step up onto the old deck, a real beauty of a rock, and I knew I couldn’t move it easily. Lorraine reminded me that our friend and neighbour Stephen has a good long pry bar (she called it a come along) that he uses for moving rocks when he is repairing or constructing his walls and rocked garden areas. Stephen not only loaned me the pry bar and some steel pipe rollers to move really big rocks, but also offered the use of his dolly which he said that Red, who lives between our houses and also has a dolly, told him was very useful in moving rocks for his rock work.

It was really gratifying to get the pry under the rock step, which was much thicker than I expected, and to budge it even a little. It was set in sand which made it hard to get a purchase on anything to be able to move it out of there, but I was able to lift it enough to get one of the pipe rollers under it and to persuade Andrew, who is young and strong and working on our house, to push on it as I arranged rollers and pried and lifted. It was great to move it to where I wanted it, right next to the large hosta (see above), and to dig out other rocks, disturbing various colonies of ants that rushed around collecting their eggs from their tunnels in the sand, and pile them there as well.

Late in the day the sun really did come out, and for the first time in almost two weeks we felt light and bright and not quite so closed in; in fact, it seemed, at least for a time, that things could dry out a little. Of course night began to fall and the wall of fog that was sitting on the horizon slid right back in to restore the balance of dampness that characterizes our weather here in June. Tomorrow is July 1, Canada Day, and maybe the sun will shine then. Until it does, our large flat rocks will lie there next to the lush hosta, wet and heavy, waiting for us to get to the task of building a walkway, a step, and a patio.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Water Ways

On Sunday at the home of good friends I saw a photograph of a train near Brandon, Manitoba crossing a bridge over water. I was told that this bridge was not over a river. It certainly looked like a river to me, but I learned that it was one of the sluices or floodways that help keep Winnipeg and its environs from being flooded in spring. I said that I loved the various words we have for watercourses or for places where water has flowed. I was thinking in particular of sluice with its fluidity of sound, as if you can hear the water right in the word itself, or rills, a lovely word, both noun and verb, for small stream or streaming. We can regret the loss of the word fluence, meaning stream, now listed as obsolete (even though we still like to say confluence); there is something to be said for its sound, the fluency or flow of it.

There are of course the places where water has flowed but are now dry. I immediately thought wadi but said arroyo, not quite sure if I pronounced it properly. Then I wondered about gulches, gulleys, and gorges, but it was wadis I came back to. We drove through them in Syria last month, maneuvered the car carefully down rough banks, across the stone or gravel bottoms, and up the other side to more flat desert. It was not always clear where the water had come from to form these now dry watercourses in the desert, impossible even to imagine water having been there, and especially enough water to flow through, roll boulders, and wash out the edges of roads. There are places on the way north from Palmyra where the water in the wadi cut the road away so sharply that it left a gravel bank more than a metre high, topped with the broken edge of the remaining asphalt. But there was no water and no flow when we were there.

I lived for a few months in a small cabin off the Redrooffs Road north of Sechelt many years ago. At the main house on the property there was a pond with a wooden sluice at one end. It was wonderful to walk around the pond on a still evening with cedars and Douglas firs reflected in it and to cross the small bridge over the sluice. This was British Columbia, the spring rain was abundant, and the pond was brimming over. As the water flowed across the flat boards of the sluice, its surface curved a little before it fell in a clear sheet the full width of the sluice way into a stream bed strewn with boulders and rushed down toward Sergeant’s Bay. It was the curve that always took my attention, the physicality of that water’s flow just before it fell, a place where surface tension, its sinuous pull, became something you could see and understand.

On Sunday we went with our friends' dog for a walk around Sullivan’s Pond. Some men were sailing their remote controlled yachts on the still water, and one sloop in particular, on a close reach, pushed a curving bow wave and left a perfect wake trail as it sped toward the other side of the pond. There were ducks and green grass and blooming rhododendrons, but the best thing for me was the sluice with a small bridge over it and the sensuous flow of pond water curving over its edge before it fell into the stream that fed into a culvert and took it under the downtown area and into the harbour.

I thought of Ghassan and the square tank he loaded into the bed of his ‘77 Chev pickup to haul a load of water from the oasis to Atala’s encampment to replenish their tank and wondered what either of them would think of this smooth sluice of fresh water that flowed down and away, collected by no one, all day and all night, and of the green everywhere, so full and lush, so perfect for grazing sheep and camels.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Blue and Green Morning

We have woken up in many different locations over the past few weeks and spent our days in a variety of light conditions, the most wonderful of which has always been the sunset light out in the desert that surrounds Palmyra and its oasis. At that time there is a hyper real quality to the world as every rock and pebble is illuminated and the world is gold with a hint of rose. Your skin glows with the colours that were flattened at midday by the high white sun. The dust-coloured Bedouin tents where Atala and his family live stand on the rise, and the camels come walking home. It is a time and a light worth waiting for every day.

Sunsets in Nova Scotia can also be wonderful, especially with the length of twilight time and the magic light of the gloaming, but it was the early light this morning that captured my attention. The wind was light out of the northwest, the air was dry, and the harbour was quiet and blue. It was an early summer northern light, clean, clear, and beautiful.

Decades ago I went to a Bergman film that was set on an island somewhere in Scandinavia. The film was black-and-white and one thing I remember most clearly from it was the whiteness of the summer light and the pale children playing on a pebble beach – it made me reflect on the thin evanescence of northern summers. Our summers here, farther south than Bergman’s landscapes, are still not lengthy, even though the holiday period from school’s closure in June through to Labour Day seemed limitless and infinite when we were kids, so we need to cherish every moment that suggests the presence of summer.

This morning there was nothing thin about the early golden light. The new foliage on the summer trees was brilliantly green, a goldfinch stopped fortuitously next to an orange azalea bloom, the cardinal sang from its usual pine tree, and the sky was a deep and shining blue. Everything was illuminated. It was a "large day", a blue and green morning in Nova Scotia.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Today is June 5, the day my parents were married 68 years ago, and the day before Allied troops landed at Normandy in 1944. It is also the beginning of our second full day back in Canada after five weeks in Turkey and Syria, though I do hear those names in my head always as Türkiye and Suriye, the way I say them when I am over there.

The sun came in our bedroom window this morning at about 5:30, illuminating the contours of our duvet and the wall hanging we bought in Cairo on the Street of the Tentmakers a few years ago. We were already awake, perhaps because of our jet lag readjustment, and it made me think about all our days of waking up over the last few weeks in Syria. There, in Aleppo and in Palmyra, we slept with our hotel windows open and heard almost every morning the wake up call from nearby mosques at about 3:40. We didn’t pray and we did usually go back to sleep, but we were for that short time consistently enthralled by the melodic beauty of the calls that came from close at hand and farther away, each one echoing the other. It made me think about the synchronicity of watches and how these tiny intervals between the starts of the calls gave a wonderful contrapuntal element to the sound.

The call to prayer, whatever the time of day and whatever the vocal ability and lyricism of the muezzin, is the most compelling evidence of the fact that I am in Türkiye or Suriye, two places where the call is particularly lovely, and it is one of the things I miss most when I am in Canada. When we attended an Iftar celebration at St. Mary’s University Gallery during Ramazan last fall, it was the small and quiet call by one of the Santamarian Muslims there that thickened my throat and brought tears to my eyes; for those who do not know it, it is impossible to explain the emotional resonance the call can carry.

It is time to start our day here, but there are so many things to do – finishing unpacking our bags, hanging out laundry, washing more things, sorting through mail, priming the bathroom walls, contacting Steve about installing our Damascene lamps, the list keeps going – that I feel like getting back under the duvet or hopping in the car and going to Coastal Coffee to hide away from it all.

We are not conscious of suffering from jet lag, but we are still in re-entry mode, both physical and cultural. This morning I am not in Turkey or Syria, there is sunshine and cool air coming in the window, boats and ships are quietly active in the calm harbour, and we have time to reflect a little as we begin to engage with this new day. So we’ll stay out of the bed, make our own coffee, and get started on this life, our Ferguson’s Cove life, with the sound of northern birds in the morning our wake up call today.