Recently watched‘The Truffle Hunters’which someone told me was about nothing and that nothing happens but that I would probably love it.
The someone was right. I loved it.
Wrong about the nothing though.
Far more everything than nothing in the ordinary daily lives of Italian white truffle hunters and their dogs. The dogs being essential to the finding of truffles and the finding of truffles being essential to the livelihoods of these people and how everything is symbiotic.
One long perfect scene is shot from the dog’s perspective in the moments while waiting to be let out of the car, then running through the woods. Another has a man and woman washing tomatoes in deep silence, just the splash of water, tomatoes being picked up, rinsed, put down, picked up, dried, no other sound until the man eventually says: I love fresh tomatoes so much. In another: a man wears shorts in the bathtub while washing his dog. In another: a 90 year old man feeds his dog treats while telling it not to be alarmed but there may come a day when he won’t be around anymore.
The side story is the enormity of the truffle industry with clients around the world, the ugly, ruthless chain of Big Business. But this part is only briefly touched on, more implied, this polar opposite view of a ‘commodity’. Thankfully the focus of the film remains on the simple origins of the commodity, the integrity of the truffle hunters themselves and the love, pride, and passion for their work.
And the dogs.
There is of course another element, something the film left out — the fact that any mushroom, even truffles, indicates the presence of fairies.
A year ago today we woke up in an RV after spending the night with our cats parked in front of a motel on the border of Quebec and New Brunswick.
We’d paid for a room but only to get the parking space. Covid protocols were wild and up until a few days earlier we hadn’t been sure we’d get the green light to travel at all, still didn’t know what would happen at the New Brunswick and PEI borders.
Anyway, we woke up in this rinky dink gravel parking lot where all night beside us was a small red car, motor running, and a group of (based on their clothing) young Amish or Mennonite folk with a parrot in a cage and a dog with a rope tied to its collar, both of which critters they kept taking in and out of their room for what seemed to be ‘walks’ or feeds from plates of scrap food. They were a highly excited group of kids, laughing, running about (maybe sixteen, eighteen years old, tops), not offensively loud just… overly happy for the time of day. It started to rain at one point and yet they still larked about, in and out of their room, the car still idling, until about 3 a.m. when we heard what sounded like car doors opening and closing and then (after much loading of wotnots)… they drove away. Bliss.
At the time it felt like sleep was important but now looking back, I’m grateful they were there. Grateful also for the night before, also spent in a parking lot (another room paid for but not used) and waking to watch a man in an electric company uniform doing tai chi beside an electric company van. I remember looking out the window of the RV as I ate my breakfast, thinking how little we know about people, how if I’d seen this guy doing his electric company work I would never have guessed that this is how he starts his day.
It’s no cliche, the journey is everything and we didn’t rush, not especially. Three days of driving and two nights in the RV, many picnic stops along the way. Lovely to have our own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom with us, felt like being a snail, travelling light yet impossible to forget anything. One of us drove the RV with the cats (who were fabulous) and I drove a pick-up filled with garden plants. My travelling companion in the passenger seat was an avocado tree given to me by my niece.
The plants have all survived, including the Ontario trilliums… that I only just discovered the other day, not yet blooming, but they survived the winter, and it was a thrill to stumble upon them; I’d forgotten I’d brought them and I’m just so glad they approve of their feet being in red soil.
A year ago today, after one last long day of driving, we pulled up in front of a house we’d never seen in person and it immediately felt like home.
There’s a good chance those young people were also heading to PEI; I’ve since learned there are sizeable Amish and Mennonite communities here. They were smart, we realized later, to cross borders at 3 a.m. — no line ups — and I often wonder about their drive, that small car crammed with feathers and fur and excitement, and sometimes wonder where they are now, how this year has been for them, if they, too, were in the process of moving from another province when our paths crossed, and I hope they, too, are happy to have their feet planted on this magnificent red soil.
And the parrot of course.
I hope the parrot is enjoying all the many pleasures of salted air.
I wrote this post several years ago on the first day of Ramadan. I now live a thousand plus kilometres away but hearing that Ramadan has started I immediately think of my lady in the dry cleaner in the town where I used to live. Can picture her hunched over a sewing machine, a tiny television set tuned to an Arabic language station, the always-exhaustion in her voice and in her eyes and the day those eyes smiled and how it left me feeling that our connections might sometimes feel strange or tenuous but they’re always there, that regardless of everything else, we are all connected, in moments, in milliseconds sometimes, and in the most surprising memories.
This following first appeared as “Promises”, on July 10, 2013.
A couple months ago in a post that began as one thing but ended up being about my dry cleaner, I wrote about how my dry cleaner’s husband kept telling her that he wanted her to have nice hands and how this frustrated her because she worked too hard to have nice hands. She would love to wear polish, she said, but who has the time.
It reminded me of a dance that went on for years between my mum and dad, who’d also come here as immigrants.
I promised myself I’d buy my dry cleaner some really good nail polish and give it to her, and today I did. When I entered the shop she was sitting at a sewing machine, head covered in a shawl. I’d never seen her in a head scarf before and wondered at the reason for it but didn’t ask.
I gave her the polish. Hot pink. I explained why, reminded her of our conversation and she laughed, said she loved the colour, asked how much she owed me and I said, no, that it was a gift. She was surprised and delighted and then told me it was the first day of Ramadan. She said it’s especially hard when it falls at this time of year because of all that daylight stretching late into the evening. The month-long fast, which includes no food OR water or anything, ends each day when the sun goes down and begins again when it rises. Much better in November, she said. Even March is good.
She normally walks an hour to work but for the next month she’ll be getting a ride. I was happy to hear it given the humidity and heat.
I said I hadn’t realized Ramadan began today, that it was just a fluke I came in, but that I was thrilled to be able to offer some small thing to mark the day and happy to have learned something so wonderful and I thanked her for that. She smiled, said she’d pray for me.
What if the compassion that caused our banging of pots led to our demanding that the needs of front line workers be met. What if we had banged pots until they were.
What if we spent two years putting our money where our mouth is so that small businesses came out ahead and the behemoths felt the pinch. And what if we continued that way forever and ignored how deprived we feel at the very idea.
What if we wanted better than to go back to normal.
What if we had stopped throwing garbage on the planet so that when our lives filled with masks we wouldn’t cover the earth with them.
What if we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves.
What if, after two years, we had taught our children (by our own example) to become people who care more about those who have less, and less about what we are missing out on.
What if kindness was the most enviable thing.
What if we had learned to talk to each other.
What if, after two years, we actually understood each other better instead of being convinced that only one of us is right.
It’s nineteen seventy something and you’re at the Hadassah Bazaar in Toronto, in the days when such places had no crowds so that you could go on a whim, casually waltz in and wander about. When the perfect white shirt cost ten cents, a shirt you would wear for years until it actually fell so badly apart it could no longer be repaired. A shirt with exactly the right length sleeves (cuffed but not quite to the wrist) and the right blousony looseness (not overly, just right), the kind of magical fabric (cotton) that allows you to tuck or not tuck (you prefer the not-tuck) and that understands how you walk and sit and stand and never has to be adjusted. The kind of shirt you are still thinking and writing about all these decades later because it was the first piece of clothing that when you put it on you were yourself. The kind of shirt that reminds you what clothes are for.
This is the nineties now, in a large department store, the sort of place where you have to take seventeen escalators to buy a pair of socks, during which travels you pass floors of many purposes and in seasonal colours. You would never be in such a store (see above) except to accompany a friend’s mother, a woman more than twice your age who dresses mostly in mauve linen pants and matching blouses and matching jewellery and sometimes prim dresses that end somewhere between her knees and ankles, who wears pumps and stockings even in summer and can most of the time hardly think of a single thing to add to a conversation, who hardly speaks at all in fact except to ask vaguely polite questions, whose entire claim to fame has been a snack she makes out of pretzel sticks and seasoned mini shredded wheat and who, as the two of you pass the fancy part of women’s wear, looks at the sparkling display and says If I could do it all over again, I’d buy a sequined dress.
The way a book finds you just when you didn’t know you needed it.
The way a friend who isn’t known for popping things in the mail sends you a book and you think: oh dear because it’s not your usual kind of book and now what? and you open it and begin reading, just to say you did, and before you know it you’re ‘away with it’ because of course it’s your kind of book, you just didn’t (yet) know it and you’re just a little surprised at how she’s glimpsed a side of you you didn’t realized showed.
The feel of the paper (we all have our favourites).
The art of the cover.
The marginalia!! (either finding it — the joy of second-hand books — or adding your own, which is a whole conversation in itself; I would love to have a book club meeting limited to the book’s marginalia; in fact I’m reminding myself that there is a book circulating right now among five friends, each of us encouraged to add notes before passing it along to the next person; each of us using a different ink so we know who’s who)
The books of our childhood, of our lives, that just by opening to a random page or illustration take us back to some summer afternoon and yellow peddle pushers, cool grass on bare legs, an afternoon of pages, a stack of buttered saltines and solitude and never once feeling alone.
Please note: I will never borrow a book from you, at least it would be very very unlikely, because I’m too familiar and relaxed with books. I bend them backwards and fold down pages, mark them up; I take them into the kitchen where the olive oil and blueberries live and to lunch and on tea breaks with chocolate. I stuff them into beach bags among mustard sandwiches and leaky water bottles and leave them under maple trees at night when it might rain and sometimes it does.
Would I lend you mine? Depends. If it’s one I’ve formed a strong relationship with, probably not. But I would love to buy you your own copy to christen with salsa and jam.
After all this, and in the spirit of book love magic, what do I stumble across this morning but this passage, by Jill Robinson.
“Once in a very rare year, there comes along a new book, and I say, as I am reading, as my eyes eat words without a blink, as my heart and mind grab each other, This, I say, is The Best Book. I know before the first page is gone. I sense it building. And as the book finishes, I go as slow as I can. I don’t want to leave the book’s world.”
And on the same page, my handwritten response:
Treasures that come to us in the arrangement of letters and punctuation. Who knew in grade one that the alphabet we were learning would be everything?
I’m committed (for the next wee while anyway) to re-posting older posts with fresh introductions, usually as one thing relates to the other or which sparks some memory. In this case The Book of Eelsis the latest among books recently read about peculiar critters and it comes to me as a recommendation by friends who said if I like books on peculiar critters I would like this one.
They weren’t entirely wrong. I did like it. Though until the very end I couldn’t understand the reason for the book’s structure (alternating chapters of eel history, facts, and lore, and memoir of the author’s relationship with his eel fishing dad). It’s the ending that pulls it all together quite sweetly.
In a nutshell, Svensson writes 235 pages about what we don’t know about eels. And it’s honestly never dull because you are gobsmacked with HOW MUCH NO ONE KNOWS about eels. (And not for a lack of trying as many bright lights from Aristotle to Rachel Carson and beyond have been trying to figure them out forever.)
Here’s what we do know, sort of. There’s a pretty strong idea they’re born in the Sargasso Sea and then, while still tiny glassy things, no bigger than a willow leaf, they make their way to various parts of the planet’s rivers, oceans, lakes, to hang out for a life time, twenty, twenty-five years if they fancy it, before heading back to the Sargasso to breed, immediately after which they die. Conjecture points to them staying alive only as long as they don’t propagate. And aren’t caught by eel fishers.
That’s almost all anyone knows and they’re not even sure that much is right. This critter is FULL of mystery that goes back millions of years. How and where, exactly, they live (deep deep water) and how they propagate (there’s some thinking they may be hermaphrodites because an eel coupling has never — in millions of years — been witnessed and there’s no proof it even happens. No one can find their reproductive organs).
“When dad talked about the Sargasso Sea, it sounded like a magical fairy-tale world… Every time we caught an eel, I looked into its eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what it had seen. None of them ever met my gaze.”
They have the ability to resurrect after being killed (and other extraordinary feats that defy explanation).
Also, the eels are in decline in a way that may represent the most recent universal mass extinction, of which there have been only five others where huge percentages of life forms disappeared (the last one being eons ago). Some reckon we are now in the sixth mass extinction, and at the rate we’re going we stand to lose 50% of current life forms within the next 100 years, a ridiculously high rate and entirely attributed to man-made causes (past mass extinctions were due to natural causes and spanned millions of years).
There is a short section on sea cows that I loved and how and why they went extinct and the dodo as well and how the eel may be next replacing the vernacular of dead as a dodo with dead as an eel.
Apparently eels were the reason Freud turned to psychoanalysis… before that he’d been into biology and got hooked on eels until the mystery of them drove him bonkers.
If you like the sound of eels, you will love moles and snails. Honest.
I’ll also leave you also with the final paragraphs of The Book of Eels, which is not a spoiler in any way but merely a satisfying point in the overall journey.
“I know it was an eel because I saw it. It slowly slithered up out of the shadows and came toward me. It was large and a pale shade of grey, with black button eyes, and it looked at me as if to make sure I could see it. I let go of the line and saw the hook come out just as the eel reached the surface, then it turned and slid back into the hidden depths.
“For a while, I just sat there by the water’s edge. Everything was quiet and the lake completely still; the sun sent a white sheen spreading across the water and everything beneath the surface was hidden, as though behind a mirror. What lay hidden underneath was a secret, but now it was my secret.”
Well. My first Maritime snow storm has come and gone, and I’m thankful for both the coming and the going. I have new respect for those who have long lived in this environment, capably, confidently and with such casual attitudes because, for me, it was an eye-opener to say the least. The ferocity of wind (100+kph) in combination with endless snow is quite a trip. In the past I’ve watched lesser but still exciting storms from the comfort of my house surrounded by other houses in a town or city with amenities nearby and thought about those who, for various reasons, have no such comforts. I still wonder how they survive. But I have renewed respect for them because having the power go out at a rural farmhouse in the middle of blinding wind and snow in the middle of nowhere, where roads can easily be impassable for days wakes you up pretty quickly to what’s really important. What I love is the way people here take it in stride, they’ve adapted and there’s power in that. In the days before the storm, when its approach was mentioned on the weather report, it was mostly referred to as a bit of rough weather ahead. “It’ll be a mess,” one reporter said, “and in 24 hours it’ll be over“, and of course he was right. There is no hysteria, no hand-wringing, the radio plays local tunes not storm watch reports and people know how to prepare. Meals are made ahead to freeze, bathtubs filled with water, storm chips purchased in bulk. Everyone knows where the flashlights, candles and extra blankets are. There is much more of course to the ‘knowing and doing’ and I’m learning. And I’m grateful for that because when it’s over and the world is one stunningly magnificent winter wonderland of pristine snow and all you hear about is the beauty, you realize that’s truer than true. And you are SO grateful for everything you took for granted just 24 hours before. That in itself is worth so much.
Coincidentally, during all this, I was reading Nomadland, by Jessica Bruder, the book made into the film with Frances McDormand. (Both are brilliant in my opinion.) Bruder lived in a van and travelled with the ‘nomads’ for two or three years in order to get the story of this hidden-in-plain-sight segment of society, essentially, and for the most part but not limited to, retired people who have lost all other options and are forced to live full-time, year-round, in their cars, vans, or trailers, moving across the U.S. with the good weather and various ‘nomad’ gatherings where they connect with friends and share valuable info on van-dwelling). Many of these people come to love the simplicity of the lifestyle and become new and better versions of themselves through adversity and finding independence and a sense of power on the other side. Not that it’s considered ideal by anyone, but neither are so many other situations people might find themselves in. This, they rationalize, is simply one choice.
The past few days have found me thinking ever more compassionately about the state of so many lives, Indigenous in remote communities as well as neighbours in towns and cities everywhere, who are trying to survive, literally, every day.
All of which to introduce my next repeat post, written over a decade ago after one of our annual trips to a piece of wilderness in the B.C. hills, where we liked to play at roughing it in the bush. It was definitely fun. And definitely nothing like the real thing.
[Updated January 18th to say… ‘come and go??’… hahaha!] [Apparently Maritime storms don’t ‘come and go’, they just take a wee breather.] [I’m learning.]
The following was originally published September, 2011.
Oh sure, I like a nice hotel, an inn, a B&B, a place with a real toilet and room to shower, but hot water and comfort aside (and I speak for both Thoreau and myself here), there’s really nothing so restorative as a week in the wilderness, under the Milky Way, reading and writing among jittering aspens, searching for the elusive left-handed windshifter and fixing meals to songs about trucks and beer and especiallylittle lady bugs on little yellow blankets…which, regrettably, I can now sing along with…on the only radio station that comes in clearly: Country Something Something FM; nothing so affirming as knowing one can survive on a small amount of fresh, local food, cooked on an open fire made with tinder and twigs and logs collected, sawed by hand (splinters removed with a sewing kit needle); the stars at night, a glass of red, a cup of tea, a handful of stones in an empty Unicorn kidney beans can to shake occasionally (due to bear warnings, not to mention the sight early one a.m. of a big black furry paw pulling at branches on the serviceberry bush outside the door—two metres from the door—of our rented trailer).
Which is exactly why I don’t do tents.
The deer were there too. This year a family of five: mommy deer—not thrilled about our big camper thing but tolerant—who tossed a few as long as you remember who was here first looks our way; twin babies, but for a torn right ear on one, who really really wanted to come closer but I worried mommy deer might have something to say about that so gave my ever-present Unicorn can a little shake (was considering wearing it on a string around my neck); papa stag, who merely followed or led or did whatever he was told to do and seemed mostly concerned with the size of his new antlers, stopping to let us have a good look at them from various angles; there was also another mid-sized adult tagging along, rather unwillingly I thought, which I took to be a visiting aunt. Numbers are significantly down, due, I suspect, to proximity of big black furry paws—only the very brave and the slightly witless linger (and deer aunts who are there under duress, possibly to attend a niece or nephew’s birthday party; all aunts know the best time to visit with nieces and nephews is NOT at birthday parties).
Then there was the bread.
Loaves of it made by a guy with a donkey that turns the grist mill that grinds the flour that is then mixed with fresh mountain spring water, sea salt. Sourdough. Toasted on the fire, buttered, with a slab of jalapeno cheese, slices of fat red onion or made into a pan-fried salami/turkey/romaine sandwich or as accompaniment to red kidney bean soup in chicken broth with chopped coriander, carrots and garlic. We had bread with eggs, bread with fruit, bread salad with yellow tomatoes and garlic bread and green salad with croutons; we had bread with bread and bread with jam and juice and by the end of the week, all that was left of the entire food supply was one tiny crust of donkey milled bread (somehow we’d managed to ration down to the last slice of shallot), which crust I packed and ate on the flight home.
As for the Milky Way—it’s usually directly and conveniently above our campsite but this time the nights were either too cloudy, too bright with the moon, or too windy dark and bear scary. So, like the serendipitous way of the world, today, on returning to emails, we find this amazing time lapse videowaiting for us, sent by someone who knew nothing of our starry starry quest.
When it comes to geese and contrails little has changed in the decade since this was originally posted. Me, I’ve moved to a place where there are more of one and fewer of the other but the other day at sunrise I saw, for the first time ever, a bright red contrail above the apple trees, which I at first took for a sliver of cloud in the morning light then saw the speck of plane, the line behind it growing like someone drawing on a giant canvas and I was sorry I didn’t have my camera but I never have my camera when I go outside early in the morning to greet the trees and I thought of running inside to get it and then a whisper of sanity from somewhere suggested I just stay put, just enjoy the moment, the sweet gift of it and the whisper (in the usual way of whispers) was wise because of course moments don’t wait for people running into houses, much less last forever, and it was all so much lovelier to watch the thing fade naturally than to try and capture it with a net.
All of which reminded me of the following, originally posted January 12, 2012, a completely different kind of moment except for the parts that always feel the same.
Ten thousand geese fly over my house at dusk, honking madly as I set out for a walk. And the moon (and is it Venus?) hangs over a fat white contrail in the not yet completely dark sky.
I consider the heart beats, the energy above me; do they notice things like juxtapositon of moon and man made cloud?
Christmas lights are on and cars pass, faces in my direction, possibly wondering why I’m standing in the street, writing on a scrap of paper in the now almost dark.
Because of the geese, I want to say. And Venus, if that’s what it is. Because of the moon and… everything.
I want to say look up! I want to point.
But the contrail has been blown away and the last of the vees has passed by. The sky has turned black leaving only the sound of the wind and tires on the road. Just the moon and maybe Venus to see— and anyone can see them anytime. No need to point.
For the next wee while I’m re-posting some of my favourite pieces with a short blurb explaining why I chose them. This one, from December 21st, 2012, has come to mind every year since. Or, more accurately, the woman has. I’m not a fan of many things that happen in stores at this time of year, but she was/is a testament to the power of the season.
So I’m in the men’s sock department at Winners and this elderly woman keeps bumping into me and leaning across whatever I’m looking at until I say: sorry, am I in your way? And she says “What do you think about these?” She holds up a three-pack. “I like the argyle,” she says, “but why do they have to put in the others?” The others are big bold stripes and she’s not sure her neighbour who takes out the garbage for her will wear them. She gets him a little something every year. “It’s so hard to know what kind of socks someone will like,” she says.
She’s the picture of Santa’s wife. White hair, wire-rimmed glasses. Rosy cheeks. A beige anorak. Navy slacks.
She shows me a single pair she’s also considering, black with a tiny red line at the top, asks what I think and I tell her they’re classic, that no one would have a problem with them. She agrees, but keeps looking. I continue looking too. I say the bold patterns make the most sense, easier to match them up. She laughs, says yes, but easier still is to buy all the same kind, which is what she did for her husband. Dozens of the same plain black, she says. Never a problem making pairs. She tells me she’d wait until he was down to one or two then fill the washer, every one of them turned inside out.
“That way they don’t get fuzzy from other things, or all pilly.”
It all seems a bit too much work, I say, all that turning inside out and back again and she says pooh, it’s no trouble, you just pile them on the chesterfield and sit down and go at it for a few minutes.
I tell her I’m not actually very fond of socks, the sheer number of them and the way they take it upon themselves to disappear one day, turn up weeks later or not at all. But mostly I really hate sorting them.
Something changes in her face, she goes quiet. Her eyes are blue. She looks at me through her Mrs. Claus glasses and I have an idea of what’s coming.
“I’d give anything to sort my husband’s socks again,” she says, then turns her head.
She tries to smile, shrugs, ruffles through the display as she tells me he died three months ago, that the family’s coming together and she can’t let herself get sad because they’re coming from Nova Scotia and Kingston and there’s the grandchildren to think of. She stops, looks up again. “But…” she says, and her sweet blue eyes are suddenly red-rimmed and we’re standing there in the socks and her lips are trembling—and I put my hand on her arm and I say, “But it’ll be hard.”
And she nods. Composes herself and we each say this and that and eventually laugh a little and then goodbye and the whole time I want to hug her but we’re in the socks at Winners and I have the feeling she’d rather not make a big thing of this, that she’s doing the best she can.
When I leave her she’s still debating about the argyle/stripes combo or the single classic black.