Deep in pink snow

pinksnowLike walking on pink snow, I thought, as my feet padded over a bed of petals under a cluster of Kwanzan Flowering Cherry trees. Here in Victoria, we get more pink snow than white; from February until May these blossoms drift in eddies from their fruit tree homes and fall gently to the ground.  And then I remembered an old book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Sally and her brother were clearing snow outside when the Cat in the Hat ambled by. Even though they remembered the havoc he created in the first book (The Cat in the Hat), they unwisely let him in the house to get out of the cold, where he ate cake in the bathtub, leaving a pink ring. When he tried to clean the bathtub ring, he made things worse: he transferred the pink stain to the mother’s white dress, the father’s shoes, the rug, and the bed. The big Cat asked for help from little cats A, B, and C (who live under his tall hat), but they spread the stain further, onto the white snow outside. You may have read this book, which culminates in “Voom,” an amazing magical cleaning agent under the hat of microscopic cat Z that wiped the snow pure white. But only after all the other 25 alphabet cats plus their leader had transformed the snow into a bubblegum-pink blanket across the yard.

I recalled the book and the image of pink snow not with pleasure, but with disquiet.  I realized that when I read that picture book, published the year of my birth, I used to feel not delight but worry. That huge anarchist cat was threatening, not fun or jolly: he initiated chaos. His swirl of pink filth grew unbidden, and I had no control over it. How scary to watch the malevolent pink stain spread like bacteria over everything inside and outside.  What a revelation to have bodily sensations—a clenched stomach and light fluttery heart—when I remembered the growing pink stain and my helplessness in the face of it. And then when the problem was solved—voila!—by Voom, again I had no control over that; it was simply something that happened out there in the world. It didn’t matter that order was restored as if the stain had never happened. What I remembered was feeling not relieved, but disturbed and powerless.

As children, we have no control over the big Cats out there—they do crazy stuff and all we can do is feel our fear and anxiety as we watch events unfold. I am reading a book, Call it Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth, that perfectly captures a child’s experience of being swung around like a leaf in a windstorm. As an immigrant Austrian Jew in the Lower East Side of New York City, David is manipulated by other children, criticized and beaten by his father, and abused and chastised by his rabbi, leaving him terrified and untrusting of the world. Only his mother Genya provides solace. Roth’s skill is in bringing us into David’s life so we feel the terror of events and his despairing existence. Once he wanders away from home and gets lost, ending up in the police station among Irish cops:

“He understood it now, understood it all, irrevocably, indelibly. Desolation had fused into a touchstone, a crystalline, bitter, burred reagent that would never be blunted, never dissolved. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Trust nothing. Wherever you look, never believe. Whatever anything was or did or said, it pretended. Never believe. If you played hide’n’-go-seek, it wasn’t hide’n’-go-seek, it was something else, something sinister. If you played follow the leader, the world turned upside down and an evil face passed through it. Don’t play; never believe.”

Part 2

Recently I rediscovered How to be an Explorer of the World (2008) by Keri Smith on my bookshelf. Smith writes, “at any given moment, no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting.”  I decided to do experiment #33, arrangements, with pink snow. I was interested in pink snow as a thing. There was the idea of pink snow from a children’s book, then there were the pink petals under my feet.

The next day I took my cloth bag to work and gathered handfuls of petals from the ground. They were soft, buttery, and damp. The petals were attached to bits of brown detritus and mixed with long pine needles from a nearby coniferous trees, so I scooped them up all up together. Smith suggests explorers do lots of things with the materials they gather: stretch them out in a long chain, use them to cover a book, freeze them in ice.  I did different things with my petals. I shaped them into a circle, a heart, and face. I placed some in a plastic zip-lock bag with purple ink and smooshed the mess onto paper. I placed a handful in a mason jar full of water and kept it for a couple of days.  I suspended a round crystal over the mound of petals on my floor. I’m not sure why. . . I was just playing.  I realize I have a strong belief in the goodness of play and creativity.  And I have a need to play creatively. I used to think that play had to be for something; now I know it doesn’t have to be purposeful. Just play. Just believe.

Now to clean up all the old petals.

 

 

 

 

 

When we were very young

I have been planning and musing over a short story idea, and one of the things I wish to implement is a wise narrating voice of a male ornithologist recalling his boyhood experiences. I thought of Rascal (1963), that beautifully written and illustrated memoir by Sterling North. The story covers one year (May 1918-May 1919) in the author’s life growing up in Wisconsin with his father and many pets, specifically his pet raccoon, Rascal. I was given the abridged version titled Little Rascal (probably for younger children), a red hardcover with a sketch of a raccoon embossed in black on the lower right corner of the book. There were more illustrations in that version than in the original Rascal: Gorgeous “scratchboard” illustrations by John Schoenherr that—although rendered only in black and white—glow with life and light.

I have kept some books from both my childhood and my children’s. But alas, not that book. I searched the shelves high and low. Although it was a favourite, I must have gotten rid of it during one of the many moving purges over the years. I took Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era out of the curriculum library here at the University, and I’ve been enjoying reading the full version of the story.

North’s writing is spare and lovely. He explains the natural world simply, for the young reader, but without talking down to his junior audience. Indeed, the book captures the attention of readers of all ages. When the boy and his father realize Rascal, the pet raccoon, will need eventually to be caged because he’s developed a taste for sweet corn, Sterling’s father plans a trip in Northern Wisconsin, near Lake Superior for the three of them: father, son, and raccoon.

North describes this childhood idyll, two weeks of camping and fishing in the woods. One day, Sterling and Rascal make a discovery in their rambles along a river:

“Then, half a mile farther upstream, we came upon it suddenly—a little lake which was the very source, as round as a big drop of dew and as clear. Its shores were of clean sand and gravel, and it was cupped among low hills, forested with evergreens, with several white birches standing in sharp relief against this background of dark firs.

There were water lilies in the shallows, their floating pads large enough for little frogs to sit on, and blossoms the size of saucers, where green and scarlet dragonflies held court.” (93-4).

My experience of reading this book again is that I revert to the dreamy, safe space of my child self’s imagination. In these imaginary green spaces, I once felt that the world was whole and benign.

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Bookmark by Madeline Walker

North does not adorn his descriptions with multisyllabic adjectives; he sticks to plain words like “little” and “big,” “low” and “sharp,” and colour words “green and scarlet.” He welcomed me into this warm world when I was very young, and I love returning there.

There is a lake just a twenty-minute car ride from where I live. Recently my friend and I took a dip there. The water lilies had just emerged, pure and white amidst lacquered pads. As we slid into the cool water, we could see an eagle take flight from an old log across the small lake. He thrust his big wings, scooped the air, and was lifted up, up. His white head sparkled against the blue sky. Dark conifers surrounded us, and the dragonflies were dancing, just as they did one hundred years ago for Sterling North.

Work cited

North, Sterling. Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963.