This time next week…

uistadeas-067.jpgThis little croft house at Howmore on South Uist will be my home for a couple of weeks as I work lambing on a traditional Hebridean croft. I expect it to be cold, rainy, windy and amazing, as I get up at dawn each day, hop a bicycle and head to the flocks (400 strong I’m told), all the while hoping the muse, that circling hawk, will visit me and help me finish my book, The Year, at long last.


R & B/Robert Cray

It’s funny how things can drop out of your life for no apparent reason, then boom, back they come, maybe years later and you’re absolutely incredulous that you could have lived without it for so long. For me, it’s R & B.

R & B… last year at Banff, I wandered into the club where all the jazz guys showcase while in residence at the Banff Centre and heard live R & B for the first time in years… I felt like I was hearing a heartbeat that was familiar, comfortable, exciting… that I had somehow forgotten existed… sweet, really sweet…I don’t know if it was the clear mountain air, hiking in the mountains, digging deep into my work or working with the voice coach, Carl Berhardt (an experience), but I just had to hear a few bars of the horns, the guitar, a funky bass line, and I fell in love with R & B all over again, and now I’m listening, really listening…

any favourites? The Robert Cray Band, Sweet Potato Pie cd, seems to be doing for me…he can sing, that man, play guitar too…

Leave me a playlist… I’m interested.

nothing against you
if I don’t speak
if I pass you by
look away when me meet
if I turn my back
walk the other way
just leave me alone for awhile and believe
it’s nothing against you”

dancing on a cold March night

last night, I went with a friend to the 10th annual Festival de la Francophonie de Victoria, held out-of-doors at Market Square, where we ate jambon, tarte au sucre… the whole nine yards, and then danced our feet off to a band from Saskatchewan, Les Cireux d’Semelles (the Sole Polishers… as in dance until the soles of your shoes are shiny… I think!) Really fun, trad. Francophone, good energy and really cute! Check them out.


 The other night, we had a master flamenco guitarist H,  and his nineteen year old son  G, to dinner.  The son, born to flamenco, has inherited his father’s incredible music and is well on the way to mastering the instrument.  He plays with the hunger and ferocity that only a young man can.  I have the great fortune to dance to G’s guitar every Tuesday, and I know one day I’ll be saying, “you know, I used to dance to that guy if you can believe it… look at him now,” and he’ll be in Jerez or New York or wherever flamenco is loved.  But first, in order that he become a truly great player of depth, he has to live. 
One of the great things about flamenco is that it is a lifelong study, and that age doesn’t determine greatness.  I heard a story the other day, about an 80 year old woman in Jerez (the cradle of flamenco in southern Spain), who was awarded the big prize in a flamenco competition simply because of the way she held up her arms and stood up.  If I understand correctly, she wasn’t even in the competition, she was a member of the audience.  How great is that?
As a flamenca, a writer, a human being, I am a student of duende- a presence, an acknowledgement of the temporal, the dark seam that gives depth to the light.  Lorca writes about it in his famous essay.  There’s also a great essay by Keith Sagar in his book, The Achievement of Ted Hughes, that discusses Ted Hughes and the duende of his poetry.
Here then is an excerpt from Lorca, 
“So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.
“Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.”
“This ‘mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained’ is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched Nietzsche’s heart as he searched for its outer form on the Rialto Bridge and in Bizet’s music, without finding it—“
“The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.”
“All the arts are capable of duende, but where it naturally creates most space, as in music, dance and spoken poetry, the living flesh is needed to interpret them, since they have forms that are born and die, perpetually, and raise their contours above the precise present.” 
García Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende

notes from the west

Yesterday, the day spent in barn and field helping J & L with lambing. I hauled big white buckets of water, fresh hay and buckets of oats and mash, to the new mothers in the lambing pens, kept an eye on labouring ewes, while J was off to the fields to check on a sick animal.

The first lamb of my day, stillborn. I could see an absence of life the moment its head appeared…it’s eyes sunken, shut forever. Often, as a lamb is being born, it will shake its head a bit… there’s a posture of liveliness even when only the head is sticking out of the mother; but this tiny black lamb hung listless as its mother birthed it. And though I rushed to it, removed the sac from its face, put my finger into its mouth, rubbed its chest and body vigourously, I knew it was useless.

The black lamb lay curled, a wet apostrophe in the straw, and I stroked the little bones of its rib cage, wishing it alive, then turned around and looked into the other part of the barn and saw another mother had dropped a big, fat, white lamb, and the lamb wasn’t moving. I ran to it, removed the cowl of amniotic sac from its face, cleaned off its muzzle and stuck my index finger into its mouth. It wheezed and sucked and sneezed and gurgled, shook its head and took a few wet breaths in, then it wheezed and gurgled some more, so I stuck my finger in again and this time it started to suck and I knew everything would be fine. The newborn lay still a few seconds more, I cleaned the sac off its ears and it shook and let out a bawl. When I turned to look for the dead lamb, I saw its mother licking it. She had two more lambs that morning, one with great difficulty. J. later told me that its her last year.

A lot of families come to visit during lambing. In the morning, two fathers brought their children just in time to see me help L. tag, innoculate, castrate and band the lamb’s tails. My job was to corner the mothers and read their ear tags (some of them can really butt hard), then to grab a lamb, identify its sex and hold it up while an ID tag was stapled to its ear, given a shot of selenium, had its tail banded, and if a ram lamb, its testicles banded. It’s always interesting watching the men watch us band the little ram’s testicles with tight rubber bands (the testes fall off in about a week or two). While women come in and watch the birthings with compassion and interest – especially women who are mothers – the men pale and often turn their eyes away during this procedure. Yesterday, L. and I did about twenty-five lambs, after which, we drove to the fields to check on the sick ewes.

J and L rent 800 acres of land and don’t always have control over what happens on the land. In the past few weeks landlords have been dumping landscape clippings onto the fields preparing for a spring bonfire. Unfortunately, a lot of landscape shrubs and garden plants are toxic to sheep, and sheep will eat anything. J. suspects that at least one of his ewes is down with some kind of poisoning, so he made up a jar of fresh ginger and hot water and gave it to the only ewe who refused to get up when we entered the pasture. J’s fear is that if she’s sick any longer, she’ll lose her milk and he’ll have more bottlebabies, or worse, that she will die. Last night, a ewe with a hernia died; her lambs became bottlebabies.

We drove to another field and found the other sick ewe. J. decided that it wasn’t poisoning, but that it was a calcium deficiency. He gave her eight needles of calcium, four in each side, and decided to check on her later. We jumped back into the truck, stopped for a coffee, then headed back to the barn where the old, skinny ewe delivered another two lambs. J. put the dead lamb into a plastic garbage bag, tractored the dead ewe out to the compost pile then he and L. headed off, leaving me to bottle feed two ravenous babies, having first had to catch them in their pen. Not an easy thing to do.


Flamenco…you either get it or you don’t…

the real Andalusian flamenco, the kind that gives you shivers up your back at 4 a.m. as you’re walking down a street in Jerez de la Frontera, and it’s Semana Santa (Holy week) and the crowd of ten thousand that walks with you following the bleeding Jesus float decked out in gold and flowers, and who are all dressed in their best clothes, suddenly stops and there’s absolute silence until an amazing singing voice cries out from a balcony above, and it’s a gypsy singing a saeta to Christ or Mary or God or the Holy Spirit, and you realize what you’re really hearing is someone’s soul, and the saeta (arrow) is aimed straight at your heart, and it’s a bullseye…

or one day you’re in class and it’s your turn to dance alone, and there are three guitars and your teacher is singing, and the other five dancers are doing palmas, you start your piece and suddenly you’re not thinking about your feet, your arms, where your body is, and you’re in compas, and you’re transported maybe for a few seconds, or if you’re lucky, a few minutes…then all the years of listening, practising, which have led up to this moment are worth it…

or when you just have to hear the opening chord of a seguirea and you forget everything about yourself, your life, your worries, your happiness even…

that’s when you know you ‘get’ flamenco. A taste for flamenco can be acquired, like good whisky I suppose, but to really feel the “dialogue of souls”, you have to be willing to open up your own for others to see…


finally, the camelia blooms – after 16 windstorms, 2 snowstorms, and a hurricane that snapped the bush into twigs –  very late this year; normally, a few open for my mid-december birthday…
normally, the bush drips with two hundred brilliant deep cerise flowers, the size of saucers, that I can see through the french doors of my bedroom… and now, maybe 24…still, what I have are even more beautiful for their rarity…

so there it is…

from the west

Winter and Saskatchewan left behind, I’m home. Indian plum, narcissi, crocus, snowdrops, hellebore, rhododendron, and yellow plum are all in blossom. This morning, I pulled my first lamb.

I rose early, ate, and headed out with my daughter, to help J. with lambing; with three hundred down, another three hundred to go, lamb and ewe cry spills from within the barn for the next two weeks or so. I’m getting ready to go lambing on a croft on the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland this April and want to learn as much as possible, so this morning, J. taught me to pull a lamb which was stuck mid-delivery. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times, but this was the first time I have actually reached into a ewe, with forefinger and index fingers, and found the lamb’s front legs and head, and with J.’s coaching, gently tugged, then pulled, the lamb to life.

poem from TheYear/Quintet copyright smsteele 2007

What a huge sense of satisfaction and pleasure we felt as we watched the lamb shake and breath to life, there on the clean bed of straw, this early March morning.