Preface to Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear

Reading from Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear at WORD Vancouver, September 25, 2016

Preface to Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear, previously published as The Bears

At a time of great upheaval in my personal life, the Pacific Northwest coast of British Columbia was under direct and imminent environmental threat. I decided to do something I had always wanted to do: write a book. Impatient to hold a physical book that I had written, I hastily self-published The Bears in December, 2012.

Any musician will tell you not to practice in public. As a music teacher, I might have carried this advice across artistic disciplines. In spite of rushing to publish The Bears, the book gathered a small but enthusiastic audience.

Other writing projects followed. Two young adult adventure manuscripts, the Sarah Spellings stories, are available to read on Wattpad. I met other writers, attended a writer’s circle, and studied the bones of writing.

In the summer of 2016 I was invited to read from The Bears at WORD Vancouver, a festival of writing in all forms, promoting literacy and reading. I hadn’t picked up a copy of The Bears since it was published. I recognized the story, but it was as though a stranger had written it. I revised the manuscript. The title had always been problematic; everyone thought it was a children’s book. Friend and poet Suzanne M. Steele suggested Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear.

I send this story back out into the world, and hope it makes more friends.

Cacti & Cobblestones

I’m stretched out on a divan in a tile-and-adobe house, on a hillside overlooking San Miguel de Allende, writing. Several handbuilt stone staircases below me, my husband plays with paints and textures in a brick studio, perched beside solar panels on the roof of the main house. Outside the ten-foot-tall windows, cacti swell and bristle on an arid hillside. Mexican music carries up from the farms below us, tuba and accordion, trumpet and a medley of male voices. Roosters crow, donkeys bray, a fusillade of fireworks explodes, celebrating the name-day of one Catholic saint or another. Nisha has given my husband exuberant, impassioned artistic direction and he’s off and running, with three canvases at various stages of completion.

Nisha Ferguson, née Edelson, went to my high school. She wore a brown leather hippie jacket with long fringes, or an authentic-looking Peruvian poncho, swirling skirts, faded jeans. She was an artist and a dancer and a gymnast and oh my gawd she was cool. Yesterday I told her how, back in the halls of Fisher Park High School in Ottawa all those years ago, I admired her confidence and panache from behind my thick, plastic-framed glasses.

“I was faking it,” she told me. “The whole time.”

Today Nisha lives on a rancho on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and her husband Dan run a highly successful ceramics studio. Also, she has a circus school, GravityWorks, where she teaches acrobatic circus acts, trapeze and silks. She and Dan have two sons, both whipsmart, athletic, and gracious. When Nisha isn’t making bold, bright, and beautiful ceramic sculptures, or teaching ceramics or circus or painting, or cooking scrumptious feasts for a table full of family and friends, she’s painting and sketching and sewing, following a muse that seems to bellow at her every waking moment of every single day.

She’s still the epitome of cool, minus the bold fakery of youth, plus the accumulated years of experience.

I found Nisha on facebook, in a moment of whatever-happened-to-her curiosity. After high school, she moved to Toronto to attend art school, and I went to the University of Toronto. In Toronto I sometimes visited Nisha and her then-boyfriend, in the cavernous abandoned warehouse on Hanna Street where they roller skated or cycled through empty hallways, ambitiously enormous pieces of installation art suspended from the fifty-foot ceilings.

Then life accelerated, and I didn’t see Nisha for a quarter of a century. I married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried a wonderful man who has dabbled in sketching, sculpting and painting his whole life. He’s good, and he wanted to push his painting up a level. A quick internet investigation revealed that San Miguel de Allende is an artist and writer’s mecca, its world-heritage-site downtown cobblestone streets packed with studios, galleries and garrets. I contacted Nisha online, curious, tentative, and asked if she could recommend an airbnb in this funky, central-Mexican locale.

“WHY would you stay in town? WE have casas you can rent!”

I wander in and around Nisha and Dan’s house. There’s a planter in the shape of a sheep, plinths here and there, perched on the edge of the roof and squatting in the rocky garden. The ceramic face of a chubby man wearing spectacles stares up the outdoor chimney, painted clouds float by on the kitchen’s high ceiling. Bullhorns over doorways, a cityscape painting of NYC, an old fashioned porcelain doll propped in a corner. Gauzy curtains in bright colours sigh in the cool breeze of this high plateau.

A few years ago Nisha wanted a way to paint as she travelled, without the inconvenience and bulk of stretched canvases. She shows me the big fabric sketchbooks she has created, unique backdrops painted on fabric, bound and sewn into thematic books, filled with startling images rendered in oil pastels, pen and ink, and other media. She has shown these books at galleries. We imagine them reproduced as art books, and a project opens up, bright purple and promising, like the blooms on the jacaranda trees.

Feast your eyes on Dan & Nisha’s gorgeous sculptures here:

http://www.danishasculpture.com

 

Eco-Fiction Author Interview

Eco-Fiction, a website promoting environmental fiction, talked to me about The Bears! This is part of a series of interviews, Women Working in Nature and the Arts.
EcoFiction Interview with Author Katie Welch

Sunday Drive Through Love Canal

Refrigerators, cars, and washing machines became commonplace, and people had more of that rare and precious commodity, time. How delicious! The prospect of ever-increasing hours of amusement in our sparkling blue-and-green playground! What would the freshly emancipated populace choose to do with free time? Picnics and camping trips? Mountaineering and paddling, days by the seaside, cycling excursions, rambling walks in the woods?

My grandmother had two teenage boys in the 1950’s. She used her free time to shop. When I was ten, my grandmother had officially declared her favourite form of exercise: walking through shopping malls. She knew the length in quarter miles of every floor of every mall within a 50 mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y. She calculated how many circuits of a given mall she should complete to benefit her health. She had fallen in love with the thing that gave her freedom, instead of freedom itself.

“Spray cheese!” my grandmother crowed. “I don’t even have to slice it to make your sandwiches!”

Going for a drive was an activity equivalent to walking in the park, or playing frisbee. Grandpa would put on his driving coat, a special outer garment for sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle. He would remove his leather gloves from said compartment and pull them on slowly, finger by finger. He would place The Hat on his thin, white hair. 

In the summer of 1978 Grandpa announced we were going for a drive with the windows up code for the place we’ll be driving is dangerous’ and Grandpa usually meant downtown Buffalo, and intended something racist.

But that day we drove through Love Canal, near Niagara Falls. Love Canal was intentionally, to save money, built on 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company. The day was sunny and beautiful, the sky a perfect blue. I hated wasting the glorious afternoon, crammed into the back seat of Grandpa’s car. Grandpa had worked for the Hooker Chemical Company for much of his adult life.

“Here we are,” Grandpa said. “Love Canal.” Grandma was uncharacteristically quiet.

It looked like any other low to middle-class neighbourhood in upstate New York: straight streets of more or less identical bungalow houses, each with a single requisite tree in the front yard. But in Love Canal, all the doors and windows were boarded up. Grandpa drove to the parking lot of the elementary school, where the puddles were full of deadly chemicals. The Hooker Chemical Company had sold this land to the Niagara Falls School Board for a dollar.

A decade later, while planting trees, I received the only letter I ever got from Grandpa, urging me to plant some trees in his name. 

 

Safe Between the Pages

I fell out of a tree, killed three butterflies, and got separated from the bosom of Mother Nature. I found sanctuary in the written word. A love for reading became an unquenchable thirst for stories. I entered the make-believe worlds of Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Richard Adams, and Noel Streatfield.

I became a gawky book nerd. Nearsighted, bucktoothed, and cowlick-tressed. I wore ugly sweaters and thick-ribbed brown corduroy trousers. Stories saved me from extreme teasing which today would be called bullying. I saw the unmistakable imprints of Mr. Tumnus’ cloven hooves in the snow. Scratches in the paint of our front door were made by Gandalf. I was Lucy, pushing to the back of the camphor-scented wardrobe; I was Bilbo on a pony in the forest, hungry mid-morning for bread and cheese.

.

 

Dead Butterflies

The grounds of Agincourt Road Public School: concrete play yard and expanse of grass, thin, weedy patches scraped by foot traffic. Mode of transportation: purple banana-seat cruiser bicycle.

I was given a Bug Catcher for my ninth birthday. Clear plastic cylinder, pink plastic mesh top for oxygen exchange. I picked three butterflies from the lilies of the valley in our backyard, and closed the lid. Smallish, pale yellow butterflies.

I went inside for lunch, and left the Bug Catcher on a picnic table in the summer sun. I listened to a Sean Cassidy record, and watched an episode of I Dream of Jeannie. Mother, furious, came downstairs with the Bug Catcher. Waved it accusingly in my face.

Three dead butterflies, delicate bodies in a wilted heap. Don’t you know touching the powder on a butterfly’s wings sentences it to death? Stupid girl stupid girl look what you have done.  

Butterfly and moth wing powder is made of infinitesimally small scales. Touching butterfly wings removes or displaces some of these scales, but won’t necessarily kill Lepidopterae. But a damaged wing structure will, and butterflies trapped in jars bash themselves against the container’s clear sides until they expire. Or my captive butterflies might have asphyxiated in the midday heat.

Greenbelt

Beyond the field lay the Greenbelt. 

Tim dared me to climb the Greenbelt’s most majestic tree, deciduous, the canopy a forest unto itself. The first four vertical meters were purely trunk, large nails hammered at regular intervals, creating a rudimentary ladder. High in the branches, closer to sun than earth, was a platform, a piece of plywood fixed in a crook of branches.

I was seven, a spider monkey, and reached the platform easily. Descending, sweaty palms slipped on bumpy bark, and blind feet reached for the next foothold, slim shaft of a nail. A nail broke, or a nail slipped out of the tree, or I miscalculated, and redistributed my weight into thin air.

The fall was fast. I was feeling for nail with sneaker, then sitting in grass under the tree. Tim says I was smiling. Our kid gang stared; some started to cry. I looked down. Blood blossomed on my thin Ecole d’Agincourt t-shirt. I was naked between shirt and shoes, shorts and underwear hanging from a nail halfway up the tree. Yellow cotton shorts. Cheap white underwear. 

I rode my bicycle home. Mother had heard my screams, and stood at the front door, braced for an emergency.  She drew me a hip bath. Forced immersion, bottom-half baptism. Splashing revealed a long scrape, not deep enough for hospital, said mother.  The scar extends from just below my left breast, to the belly button latitude.

The Field

In the field beside our half house, I was chief engineer and steward. I trampled paths from our backyard to the neighbours’. Long grasses I knew by scent, the one that smelled like cereal, and the bunchy one with wide, flat blades that reeked of swamp. I could have mapped the anthills, the holes used by mice or snakes, the patches of clover. Occasionally a candy wrapper or waxy coffee cup would pollute the field’s south side, abutting a busy road. Maintenance, me, would clean these up. 

In winter my brother and sister and I built edifices of ice in the field, sanctuaries featuring three-cushioned snow couches, and iceboxes full of tasty ice pizzas. 

Retrace splay of veins on maple leaf. Understand dandelions, in all their vicissitudes, from cinched green button-buds through yellow glory, ten thousand miniature suns, staining fingers and cheeks. Milk inside hollow stalks. White parasols, freed with puff of breath, defying gravity.  

 

Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear

A bear’s paws are tainted with oil after a pipeline spill near Kitimat… and so begins an eco-adventure set in the north of British Columbia. Three environmentalists and the bears they love are linked by a tragedy, they come together in a mythical, reverent story about nature and those who would do anything to protect it.

The Bears, ready to be entertained