Jane Eaton Hamilton

"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” – Lillian Hellman

Tag: friendship

Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Reifel2

Reifelphotographs: Jane Eaton Hamilton

republication: first published here in 2014

I was at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta with my friend M-E in October as it rounded towards November. Delicious place to spot wild birds, from Bohemian waxwings to Harlequin ducks. I had decanted seed into baggies, some kind of major success to even have remembered to bring it.  The leaves were changing in spectacular, eastern ways because of our dry sunshiny October. We had yellows, we had oranges, we had reds. Since photosynthesis had shut down, the anthocyanins in each leaf stirred to protect the trees from sunshine.

M-E and I stood watching 3 Lesser Sandhill Cranes do very little, their orange eyes reptilian and attentive, on the lookout for bugs. One would move forward on Pick-Up Stick legs and knobby dinosaur-skinned knees to peck in the dirt. Its tutu tail feathers would shake. Its knees, I noticed, were knobby; the skin thick and scaly, dinosaur-ish.

How to tear myself away even when M-E was showing signs of boredom?

I thought of how long Sandhill Cranes had been on Earth—according to fossil evidence, at least 10 million years. They had red topknots and white cheeks, but who knows why. They only weighed about ten pounds, but were still among the biggest, and most beautiful, of uncommon birds.

Uncommon, I mean, relative to Chickadees and Bushtits, ducks and coots.  Uncommon relative to starlings or crows.

Crane

I considered the woodpecker’s long tongue which curved around its entire head, wrapping even its brain; I thought of how birds had hollow bones, and many air pockets for flight. I had held two dead Yellow Finches in my hands just months earlier, victims of my cat, their bodies still warm, their heads lolling; I knew how deceptively light a bird was. (How big a cat bell really needed to be.) How my cat really needed to say indoors.

M-E and I moved along to watch catfish circle through slurry water, fins brown and slick. It was them or the ducks for the birdseed we threw.

We strolled along a pathway in dappled light, birdhouses and feeders nailed to the trees, Red-winged Blackbirds winging down and zipping gone. I admired the light, the leaves, the red fields, the sunshine and shadows on the lumps of the tilled farmers’ rows. Geese with black-tipped wings looked like hundreds of unmelting snowballs as they squabbled in the muck..

When I thought of birds dying, I always thought of the National Geographic article by Jonathan Franzen about the plight of songbirds in Europe and across northern Africa (Franzen article). I thought of the extraordinary video by photographer David Guttenfelder of Warblers caught on sticky lime sticks. Hunters trap Ortolan Buntings, a delicacy in France, and Quail and Turtledoves, and Cranes and Golden Orioles. In Cypress, a dish called Ambelopoulia calls for European Robins and Blackcaps; each songbird nets two bites.

All these birds have long migrations. Exhausted and depleted, perhaps after crossing the Mediterranean, they require rest and food, but hunters lie in wait with trap sticks, nets or guns. Capturing songbirds has a long history, Franzen tells us, and is even referenced in the bible, but today the practice (with the help of population surges and technology) has grown epic and is decimating populations.

Happily, here, in the reserve, we revered songbirds. Instead of eating them, we fed them.

When I thought of birds living, my heart filled. Now a couple passed us sunflower seeds.

chickadee

M-E and I stood with our arms extended, our hands now buckets for black seeds. The birds, small and frenzied, flitted through the shrubbery, chattering to each other, considering the lures. They did well to be suspicious.

A little girl, perhaps four, perhaps five, watched us. I thought she was going to say something about birds, but instead she just elbowed her friend. “I’ve spent all day with you,” she told her, her face drawn and worn.

The friend had curly hair which frizzed around her head with the sun shining through it. She ran her hand up and down the front of her brown jacket. From her cuffs dangled blue mittens she didn’t need. “I don’t know,” she answered, perplexed.

In the bushes, three Chickadees hopped from branch to branch, assessing the sudden windfall.

M-E’s hand shook a little from the effort of keeping it still.

The original girl said, “You have to give me that … I’ve spent all day with you, since morning.”

The friend slowly nodded. “All right,” she said.

The first Chickadee landed on the side of my palm, grabbed a seed and winged away.

“That bird,” said the friend, pointing. “I like that bird.”

I said to her, in wonder, “It felt like a whisper.” I talked gently for a minute about how they wore black caps—did she think they only wore them in the winter, like people might?

The first girl looked up at me, her face knitted into a grown-up expression of irritation.

A Chickadee landed on M-E.  Rotund, it hopped down her arm. She giggled like someone very young, and I photographed it.

The second girl extended her hand to me and into it, I tipped out some of my seed. She held out her arm; I saw that her eyes were wet, a tear trembling just in the center of her bottom left lid.

“Just wait,” a woman said. “Just stay very still, Margo.”

The first girl frowned. Her hair switched like a horse’s tail. Finally she hit the second girl’s arm, scattering the bird seed. She put her diminutive hands on her hips and said, “Margo, listen to me.  I’m trying to say that it’s time I saw other friends.”

The tear fell to Margo’s cheek and slid down her young skin while her mouth shaped an “O.”  For a second, that tear was everything, and I watched it while Chickadees landed in my hand, their claws like the tiniest tap shoes. Margo crouched down, wounded, something caught in a trap, and clamped her hands over her ears.

We all noticed the hush. The dees suddenly made themselves scarce; Margo looked up. Above the farmer’s field, a Cooper’s Hawk circled; from where we stood, it looked speckish and dull and no threat. But a din broke out as the field of migratory geese lifted. The sky turned white above us, as if we’d been caught in a snow globe. All the alarm honks, all the 54-inch black-tipped wingspans flapping at once, was overwhelming, and sounded first like an accident, a multi-vehicle pile-up, and then exactly like a train barreling towards us and about to run us down.

Run! came the primeval urge.  But only small Margo actually did and what she was running from was anyone’s guess.

“It’s just birds!” I yelled, but she couldn’t have heard me.

Over in Europe, maybe right then, robins, orioles, warblers were stuck on sap traps, every movement towards freedom ensnaring them.

The sound of their wings as they struggled.

The snow geese above us.

Fat-bellied Chickadees.  Long-necked Cranes.  Slick-finned catfish.  A little girl’s friendship ending.

A sunshine-doused day in the bird sanctuary.

Sarah van Arsdale is a straight writer. Or a lesbian writer. Or a bisexual writer.

typewriterJEH

Over at Guernica, Sarah van Arsdale explores her writing career through the lens of her sexual orientation.

I Was a Lesbian Writer

Here’s Sarah van Arsdale’s article from this January about literature and keeping oneself to the work and jealousy. Highly recommended; in fact, this may be the best article I’ve read about how a friend’s success affects those of us still deep in the trenches.

My Famous Friend, Bookslut

Blog Tour: Shelagh Plunkett

So a friend in Montreal sent me Shelagh’s book, The Water is Never Blue, by post, which I am this weekend hauling back to Montreal completely unread (and yes, with plans to speedily remedy my appalling oversight), but in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to read Shelagh from other sources, and in addition Shelagh’s read to me–her lovely birthday gift chased with clafloutis aux cerises in a cottage in a woods.

Anyone who knows me at all well knows I lost my best chum, the queer writer Candis Graham, to an aneurysm some years ago.  She and I–she in Ottawa, me in Vancouver and on Saltspring Island–shot handwritten letters to each other in a fever that began in the mid-80s, until we had towering mounds of hundreds.  She visited me there after a Women and Words retreat; I visited her in Ottawa when I was there doing readings.  During the last years of her life, as we switched to computers and she moved to Victoria, we weren’t as prolific with each other, but our love remained boundless, and she was, in 2003, best woman at my wedding.  I miss her every day of my life–her stubborn optimism, her grouchiness about CanLit, her solid good politics, everything we talked about at such length, our trust and gifts, our perspicacious support no matter what circumstances we landed ourselves in.  When life required that I had to start missing her instead of having her by my theoretical side, it was the details that did me in, how each of her letters was on yellow paper and began with a weather report and a description about where in her menstrual cycle she found herself.  And I missed the big stuff too.  I missed that she wouldn’t write any more of her stories that were so bang on and beyond her time.  We passed our work by each other.  We shared submission lists.  We appeared in the same publications.  We published in the same queer anthologies (usually from Women’s Press or, later, Second Story).  We published first and second books around the same time.

You don’t replace a woman like Candis Graham.

But sometimes another writer shakes herself out of the Montreal chill, and says hello, and that is how it was this spring when I was at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival for the CBC Awards.  Shelagh and I started gabbing, and that was pretty much it–three drunk hours later, not only had we shut down the awards ceremony, but we were fast (and dare I say it felt like old) friends.  Like Shelagh, I don’t make friends in the writing biz easily (probably because I am shy and hide behind pillars), but this one seemed not just easy but gratifying.  Shelagh and I had occasion to meet up again in July for my 60th birthday, and again we had more than one of those long, rambling talks writers need (so their loved ones don’t go mad).  Though I’ll miss her this trip to Montreal, while she knocks around Ayers Rock in AU, we’ll meet again in November when I’m east to launch my new book, when Shelagh and I will be reading together along with Deanna Young and Michael Kenyon at Drawn and Quarterly Books.

 Shelagh

Shelagh, me, Kari: at the cottage, 2014

You can find more about Shelagh’s toned, nuanced work by following her blog, and here are her blog tour answers:

What am I working on? 

It’s been almost a year since my first book, The Water Here is Never Blue, hit the shelves. Since then I’ve been kept busy writing about that writing and dealing with the sometimes difficult and occasionally delightful journey that a book takes once it’s been launched. I haven’t had the wherewithal to start the writing of a new project, but ideas, images, and narrative threads have been dancing around, pairing up and shattering apart, percolating, and gestating in the background of my mind for months. In one week I will be in Australia, and there, in the Red Centre of that far away place, I will begin, in earnest, something new.

Something new, yes, but what exactly I am not certain. Fiction, yes, a novel, I think likely, but I also have the skeletal plan of a book of nonfiction, something that would be labelled “memoir” again. And, I also have a slew of essay and article and short story ideas that are all getting pretty impatient about being kept silent in the corners of my mind.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre? 

I like to think my writing has a unique voice and that I write nonfiction that reads like a novel – hence the tag “creative” and “literary.” In The Water Here is Never Blue I set out deliberately to write about the politically tumultuous places and times covered (Guyana just after independence and Timor during the Indonesian invasion) from the perspective and with the limited understanding and wonder of the naive child I was at the time. I think I managed that. I think it was an approach that differed from what others may have done with the same material. I was both rewarded and punished for my choice, but it’s not one I’d change if I were embarking on the same project today.

Other writers, some reviewers, and quite a few readers who have sought me out have had nice things to say about my writing. It’s been described as very lyrical. It’s been said that The Water Here is Never Blue is a “highly original concept” and that it “glitters like a literary novel.” Linda Spalding wrote that it “is a unique story, beautifully told,” and Donna Morrissey that it is “multi-layered” and “told in the raw yet innocent voice of the narrator.” All very cockle-warming and pleasant and, dare I hope, honest. If nothing else, such praise inspires me to slog on with the next project.

Why do I write what I do? 

I write because I always have. I write because I love playing around with words, shuffling verbs, making paper dirty with those 26 letters granted by my mother tongue. I write because when I don’t (and I’m proficient at avoidance) I start to growl and bare my teeth. I write because I believe there is value in illuminating the small wonders that we all experience and which bind us despite our infinite and sometimes monstrous differences.

How does my writing process work? 

Writing, for me, is fraught with myriad antithetical impulses. I love it. I hate it. I dread it. I don’t want to shake myself back to reality when I’m rollicking along the sentences I’m building.

But, long before that stage, the actual writing stage, I begin with a concept – some philosophical conundrum or moral complexity. This is the fermentation stage and during it, because I find the farthest end of the abstract spectrum a bore, I start gathering concrete details that I think will help reveal whatever concept has me by the throat. My mind is never not thinking about the project. Sometimes that mental activity is going on deep in the background and sometimes it is in the foreground, but it never stops. Things seen on a walk, a word overheard or seen on a page, a flash of colour, a particular sound, a smell detected on a subway car, these are all building blocks to something that will be written. This stage usually includes a lot of ideas that start off as small bits and pieces but gradually gel into larger, more complex things – maybe characters, maybe narrative threads.

When the time is available, when the funds allow, when I can’t stand not writing any longer, I start off. I try to keep to a regular schedule, I commit to spending the allotted number of hours in front of the computer. I write longhand when I’m stuck but find things flow better on the computer. I try not to count words until I’m well into the process. The writing usually builds in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back manner so that by the time I’ve finished a full draft it’s fairly polished. I’ve begun to realize that I produce more in the afternoon than in the morning, but on writing days I always make myself begin in the morning. I try to take Hemingway’s advice and leave off in the middle of something that is going well so that the next day’s start is made a little easier.

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