"McNutt's Island used to be so beautiful," a friend told me today. I was startled. I feel so enveloped by beauty here that at first I could not think what he was talking about. Then I realized. He meant the dead spruce trees. They are everywhere. Along the island's western side there are huge swaths blown over by the fierce storms that hit the island several times a year. I think Hurricane Juan did the most damage, several years ago, and since then the remaining trees have been more vulnerable. Dead trees sprawl along the roads, their branches broken off at crazy angles. They teeter threateningly above the paths, only half-fallen, sharp branches pointed at your eyes, dripping with Old Man's Beard. You pass beneath them, quaveringly.
Compared to deciduous trees, spruce grow up quickly and begin to die quickly. And they have a shallow root system. There's not much that holds them to the earth. So they become like dominoes -- one falls into the next, and together they take down a few more. Add to their speeded-up life cycle the strong winds that rake the island, and you have the conditions we see all around us.
Just beyond our northern stone wall there is a wide swath of devastation that extends from the shore all the way to the lower road. It is a skeleton forest of trees driven mad -- indeed driven to death -- by hurricane winds. Trunks white as bones lean against each other, starkly angled, austere. The ground is an impenetrable mass of rotting trunks and branches.
I understand what our friend was telling me. When we first moved here I thought the dead forests were ugly, too. But I don't anymore. His comment helped me realize how greatly my own perspective has changed during the year and a half that we have lived on the island.
Now I see the dead forests as an aspect of the island in its cycle of growth and decay. Out of the destruction something new emerges. Tiny spruce trees, no bigger than your hand, are everywhere. When you look closely you find a subtle world of mushrooms and fungi and lichen and moss colonizing the dead wood -- a world of colour even now in the dead of winter.
McNutt's Island really is, at heart, a wild place. Storms blow, and patches of forest fall, and the island is always in the process of dying and being born. It really is quite beautiful, on its own terms.
It's New Year's Eve and silence has fallen on the island. Our friends have returned to the mainland. All day the lobster boats were back and forth in the harbour on calm waters, bringing in their traps before the big blizzard that will hit Nova Scotia tonight. Tomorrow morning we'll wake up to an island transformed by snow, and everything will be new again.