In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Laundry


I do love the way laundry claims order out of chaos on such a managable scale. When we arrived here way back in the summer of ought seven, the house had neither electricity nor plumbing. For a month or so I drew water by the pail full from an old stone-lined well, heated it on the Coleman camp stove, and washed our clothes under an ancient apple tree, by hand. There was a washboard in the house when we arrived, and I used that, too, and a galvanized tub. In my hazy memory of that summer, the sky was always blue and the sun bounced off the glittering harbour waters spread out before me as I stepped, awed, into a pre-industrial life.

But as much as I enjoyed washing the clothes that summer, I like our washing machine even better.  It's quite a basic machine, and it uses lots more energy than the new-fangled ones do.  So we wait until a sunny and windy day, like today, to wash the clothes. Of course those are the best days for drying laundry anyway, so everything hangs together: another small sign of order.  

After years of throwing the clothes in the dryer, I take enormous pleasure in hanging them on the line. I love that the sun and the wind have their way with them.   And I love drying the dishes with these fresh dish towels and sleeping on these fresh sheets. 

Skipper gave me a forked spruce pole to keep the line from sagging. Our clothes line is suspended between two of the old apple trees -- these two haven't been pruned in decades, since Greg didn't get to them last spring. The tree on the left is a golden russet, a wonderful and beautiful apple.  We haven't yet identified the tree on the right, though our notes say its fruit has a pear-like taste.   The stone walls are probably filled with dozing creatures, undisturbed by flapping dish towels or thoughts of domestic order, just drifting off for their winter sleep.  


Saturday, November 8, 2008

New Jerusalem Farm

For the past year or so we've been mulling over a name for this place. Locally it's known as The Hyde Place, since Elizabeth Hyde and (after her death in 1993) her family owned it and loved it for nearly half a century.  Elizabeth herself had named it Sundown Farm -- a perfect description of the daily gloriousness of sunset across the harbour.  But we wanted a name that would evoke the dreams and disappointments that have seeped like fog through the island's history.

Last summer two knowledgable visitors told us they thought Alexander McNutt had settled some of his New Jerusalem immigrants here on the island. It could be. After the expulsion of the French Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755, the British were eager to settle this land with people more amenable to their imperial goals. McNutt was given vast tracts of land for the settlement of Ulstermen in Nova Scotia.  Most of his schemes came to nothing and eventually he retreated to this island where he lived with his brother Benjamin until he finally returned to Virginia.  

When the Loyalists arrived in Port Roseway in 1783, the British redistributed land once again. Some of the "old settlers" (that is, the ones who had been settled in the area between 1755 and 1783) were moved around to make room for the influx of new refugees.  Benjamin McNutt kept his two hundred and fifty acres on what was already called McNutt's Island, but most of the rest of the island was divided into fifty acre lots for the Loyalists.  It's possible that the island had been a part of the earlier New Jerusalem settlement here in the 1770s.  

In honour of the idea, we decided to name this place New Jerusalem Farm.  It's a name that not only evokes the island's past hopes and dreams, but also our own.  

It's our dream that New Jerusalem Farm will teach us how to live in peace and wonder and grace, attentive to the world unfolding around us and attuned to its unexpected gifts.   Also that eventually we will make apple cider that tastes like a little bit of heaven for a thirsty world.

So with our three hectares of heritage apple trees, we applied for a farm license with the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture and got it.  Now we are officially New Jerusalem Farm on McNutt's Island.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Harvest Lessons

Here's Greg's October column from The Coast Guard:

I am standing at the top of a 20-foot A-frame ladder with my head poking through a maze of branches, twigs and hanging apples.  I have climbed up into one of our ancient apple trees.  Its limbs go in every direction, like an orchestra conductor out of control.  From here I can see the rest of the orchard and the sky above.   A circling hawk eludes a squadron of dive-bombing little birds as they protect their nests.  The hawk pretends indifference, but the birds and I know better.  Finally, he drifts away as if not really wanting their eggs after all, nor being in the least bit perturbed by the birds’ aerial attacks.

Inches away a young downy woodpecker pecks at a limb.  In her haste, she has not noticed me, as if it would never occur to her that a human could be up this high.  When she does spot me, she flies off, not bothering to find out why I am up here.  I am here to pick apples.  It’s harvest time on McNutt’s.  Forty-five trees, most of them over one hundred years old, need picking.  I am at number five.

Apples hang motionless around me, neither fleeing nor attacking.  The apple tree itself remains still, except for a gentle stirring in the afternoon breeze.  It seems undisturbed by my intrusion, almost accepting.  I strain a bit from my vulnerable place atop the ladder, trying to reach one particular apple that eludes me.  I put my arm out to an adjacent limb to brace myself.  It supports me, as if doing what it can to help.

I would have imagined my relationship to this tree to be adversarial, me wanting its fruit, it resisting my advances.  But the tree graciously acquiesces, proving me wrong in my attitude.  It teaches me something of a quiet grace.

The fruit it offers, to be quite honest, is not pretty.  The birds and insects have had their way with it.  It could not pass muster at the supermarket.  There, food on display requires perfect skin and a uniform look.  There is no uniformity about the blemished and irregular fruit I pick.

I am finally able to get the elusive fruit.  I decide it is worth sampling.  As I bite into it, its taste explodes in my mouth with sweetness, tang, lightness and crunch.  I feel the fruit’s essence infusing my whole being.  I stop my efforts for a moment and close my eyes, a dangerous thing to do at the top of a ladder.  I feel empathy with Eve.  I too would betray for the likes of this.  Who could imagine that within such a blemished and ill-shapen skin there could exist such sweetness?  In this too the old tree teaches me something of life - of living fully and deliciously from within, unconcerned with perfect presentations. 

It seems fitting that these trees offer up their apples in the season when we gather together in gratitude for life’s bounty, and share, imperfectly but generously, what we have with each other, blemishes, sweetness and all.  This apple reminds me of this.

Tomorrow I will begin making cider and apple butter from the bounty of today’s tree.  I will give most of what I make to friends and relatives, a small way of honoring the tree’s generosity.  Yet there will still be more apples to harvest, at least a month’s worth spent amid limbs and branches, balancing on my ladder, leaning occasionally on the mercies of each tree, reaching for what eludes me.

I will enjoy being with my new friends, the ancient orchard trees.  I suspect they are not through teaching me all that they know.

 

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Our first cider making day

It was a beautiful, delicious day.


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Looking at apples


We have over forty apple trees and they are very old.  We think William Perry planted them in the late nineteenth century.  We are slowly identifying the trees and learning about apple characteristics in the process.  We have old heritage varieties such as Golden Russet, Alexander, Ashmead's Kernel, Cox's Orange Pippin, Bishop's Pippin and Gravenstein.  Some varieties we know are of a general type, such as Greening or Newtown Pippin or some of the early golden varieties like August Apple, a local name.  My favorite apple name is Transcendent Crab.  If you have to be a crabapple you might as well be transcendent.  We took pictures of each variety and began to build an apple library, so we can add to our knowledge about each kind as we go along.   

One of the great lessons of the island is that the more closely you observe something the more beautiful it becomes.  Most of these apples would not fare well in a market.  They are small and oddly shaped and their colors are subtle rather than bright. But the more I looked at their peculiarities -- their russeting, blush, streaking, the little pin point dots called lenticels which can be so many different colors themselves -- the more I recognized their beauty.  And the differences in taste are just amazing.  

Greg climbed up into the trees and picked most of the harvest, brave soul.  We put all the apples in big old wooden crates, and borrowed more from Skipper.  Then we washed them thoroughly and fed them into the hopper of the new cider press.  

After the chopped-up apples are pressed into juice, there's a mash left over, which we dumped in the yard for the sheep and deer.  We have a picture of the sheep gathered around the mash at the end of one day.  They must have thought they'd gone to heaven since they didn't even need to chew, something they can't do very well. 

  

we only drink cider now

We started picking apples in early October, and by the middle of the month Greg had assembled our new cider press. We were ready to go. We spent a dizzying few days trying to press and store sixty or seventy gallons of cider. We gave away lots of it fresh, froze as much as we could, and started the hard cider process with about twenty gallons. As usual, we barely know what we are doing, but we are willing to learn from our mistakes, if only we can remember what they were.

Neither of us has ever been a particular fan of apple juice or the cider you could buy in the store. It was sweet and insipid. But now we have a new perspective. We held a two person tasting of the cider from each of trees, and discovered that the tastes were quite different -- except toward the end, when they all tasted pretty much the same and we couldn't touch another drop. We mixed a few and started giving them names. Short Cut cider is from the two trees along the short cut between the lower road and the main road. Those were two of our best trees. Three Sisters is from three trees that run along the stone wall just north of the house. I'm pretty sure one of those trees is a Maiden's Blush apple, so Three Sisters turns out to be a good name.

I'm drinking Three Sisters right this minute. In fact, we've given up buying soda and frozen cranberry juice and wine. We only drink cider now.