< back

Graham Dowden    
January 28th, 2002

Dear Diana:

I knew where I wanted to do something with your shells Stave Lake, north of Mission but I wasn't sure what. It's really a reservoir, not a lake, and every year, not long after Labour Day, when the power boat and personal watercraft pests have gone back to suburbia, BC Hydro drops the water level by as much as twenty feet in anticipation of spring runoff, exposing thousands of eighty-year-old stumps and spars and snags and miles of wide, sloping beaches (all of which will be under water again by the following June). It's a magical, weird, haunted place at this low season, especially in a kayak, gliding through ancient, wrecked forests along with the loons and mergansers and beavers.

One day last fall, though, I walked in, and it was only when I saw smoke rising and got closer and realized it wasn't a campfire by the shore but a huge heap of driftwood that some yahoo had torched a week earlier and walked away from and the fire had got through a wide swath of logs and stumps and up into eighteen inches of duff and humus and into the roots of a large hemlock and was threatening a whole stand of lovely forest and it smelled not like any campfire but like a house that had been burned to the ground - it was only then that I knew I wasn't going to merely scatter your shell fragments randomly on the beach, I was going to place them, to arrange them. In a spiral.

I wasn't entirely sure then why a spiral, and I'm still not. But when I was in Arizona a few years ago visiting the utterly breathtaking Betatakin ruin, the only pictograph the guide wouldn't let us near was a big painted spiral on the canyon wall.

Too sacred or powerful, this one, for mere tourists. Apparently for the Anasazi the spiral motif had something to do with a difficult and obligatory migration - one of those journey patterns that starts from home, goes out in ever-widening circles, and, if you make it, eventually drops you back on your own doorstep, just who you are and yet somehow utterly changed. The more stubby the spiral in any given pictograph, I gather, the more truncated the journey was recorded as being.
And at Cannon Beach in Oregon a couple of autumns ago I came upon a huge, raked spiral on the flat wet sand. Every night, I assume, the tide came in and washed it all away, and every morning, I assume, the fellow went out with his rake and did the whole thing over again, which for my money beats rolling a rock up and down a mountain for the rest of your life.

At Stave Lake, I couldn't see any way to carry water up to douse this ground fire (apart from an old tin pot with twenty bullet holes in the bottom), so I shrugged, hoped
for the best, and set about making your spiral of shell fragments on the sand. All in all, when I was done, I was pleased with my work, though as you'll see from the photographs I got carried away with the breadth of the thing with consequences for the length.

I stood up, took a few pictures, once again lamented my inability to do anything about the fire, and was about to leave when what should I literally stumble over but a decrepit eight-litre plastic bucket (salsa sauce) with a big crack down one side, plus a hole. It was an awkward trudge up a sandy hillside, but by holding the bucket just so I managed to get a little over a litre of water each time up to the coals and embers and flying sparks. Each individual splash caused little more than a brief hiss and a puff of steam, but after an hour, when it was getting dark anyway and I had to go, I figured I just might have ... not put the fire out by any means, but maybe dampened it enough that it would die of its own accord.

Going all the way back to the lakeshore for water each trip would have taken too long, but I had found a shallow pool in a pocket of sand much closer to the trees, and this served. There was a mildly grim outcome here, though: the more I bucketed this pond, the more I bucketed it out, and as I dumped my final, weary splash of water on a flat bit of smouldering root, suddenly here were all manner of tiny, pathetic, wriggling things in the soot and muck and ash! What the hell? How could anything have been living in that heat?
I bent down. I looked closer.


Minnows from the pond I had just scraped dry. I hadn't thought of September 11 all day.
But this, October 8th,was the second day of the bombing campaign. And here I was, hero, one-man bucket brigade, trying to save one small world and wiping out another in the process.

I haven't been back since, not yet. I don't know whether that stand of trees is still green, or is as black and blasted as the forest cut eighty years ago for the power that runs this computer I'm sitting at. It did begin to rain heavily later on the evening I was there, and it seems to have been raining ever since. I'm almost afraid to see what became of our spiral of shells. Maybe the rains brought it out in stunning relief. Or maybe they washed it away, or buried it in a new alluvion of sand.



April 13th, 2002

Dear Diana:

Here's a kind of postscript to my contribution to the Alluvion project. I finally walked back in to Stave Lake a couple of weeks ago, after six months of heavy rains and quite a lot of snow, to check on the fate of the spiral of shells I put on the sand. Not to mention the fate of that little section of forest that was on fire the first time I went. Well, not only did the fire not burn any further than it had when I left it (owing largely, I suspect, to the torrential downpour that began that same night), but the trees whose roots seemed (and still seem) severely burnt are as green or greener than ever!
Down on the beach, your spiral was completely covered in new sand, except for two buttons, which are clearly visible in the close-up photo, as are the hoof prints of the deer which strolled across the site (from the look of them, very recently). In the photo with the big stump in the foreground you can just barely see the buttons in the lower right. The third photo shows what happened. Alluvion! Just as I surmised last October,
but never seriously expected. From the bottom of the photo toward the top you can see how the heavy rains have run down the sandy slope, creating an alluvial fan that spreads around the stumps. This summer, when BC Hydro raises the reservoir level again, all this, including of course the muddy wasteland in the background, will once again be under water, and I can't wait to glide over the scene in my kayak and look down to see if wave action has once again uncovered part of your spiral.

Graham Dowden