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.

Friday, January 30, 2009

January birds

One morning I glimpsed a dark silhouette swooping quick across the upstairs window. It was early and I was still in bed, listening to the sounds of the coffee grinder in the kitchen. The bird was too fast for me to react: I barely registered it.  

The next morning, early again, I heard the familiar sound of a rusty hinge squeaking back and forth, back and forth: sound of crow, or raven.   I listened to them both at Cornell's Macaulay Library and decided that these island birds are crows.  

The day after that I watched them down along the shore line, flying up into the trees, perched at the top of a spruce, or in the vast tangle of bayberry that skirts the rocks by the old cellar. I got the binoculars and counted six on the ground. 

The next day I watched six, followed by a seventh, flying together, heading northward above the island forest.  Only one was calling, and that with a pattern and rhythm of sound and intervals.  
They seem to stay together.  Then I counted seventeen crows in the air, flapping fast across a bright blue sky.  We found many more than that last summer, in a spruce forest near the island's southern edge. Maybe now, in late January, the lengthening of the days gives them new fervour for all that lies beyond their nesting grounds. 

Later in the morning I sat for an hour or so on top of the picnic table to look and listen.  Bird sound surrounded me: from behind my left shoulder, in the spruce forest, I could hear the soft twitter of some boreal song bird. In the foreground from left to right and back again, along the shore, the crows were staking their claims, sometimes intensely. Beyond the crows, in the placid cove, several loons drifted and dived and called out.

And to my right, somewhere past the bayberry bushes or from within the dead forest,  I heard the hooting of an owl, I thought. At first I heard it without hearing it. Then I became aware of the sound.  I did not think it possible, but there it was, on this cold sunny still January day.

I went inside and sent urgent owl questions flapping into the cloud. Through the air the answers flew down and lighted in the living room: I was listening to a mourning dove, not an owl.  It's a common mistake, I was assured.  How mysterious that I can call up the sound of a bird from decades ago and thousands of miles away, the distant ancestor of the dove that's cooing down in the bayberry bush, and hear its song immediately, clearly, still among us.  

There's an ancient musical composition of some sort going on out there, what with the introduction and repetition of notes and the weaving of seemingly disparate themes in a seemingly random manner. Right now, I'd say, it's faint. It's only January after all, and the musicians are still tuning up.  

Images from Birds of Nova Scotia, at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The names of things

You lack the names of things when you go to a new place.  I have been like a toddler the past two years, asking over and over, what's that? Or like a sneaky toddler, not asking outright but listening hard to add to my store of island words.   

There is a word that Robin taught me the first summer we were on the island. The tufts of wool that are caught in the branches when the sheep brush against them on their endless circuit around the island: rovings.  Rovings are not just useless remnants hanging randomly on island brambles, like you might think. There's a great deal you can do with rovings. You can collect them, which would be wool-gathering. You can card, spin, weave or knit them, or if you are lazy and skill-less like me and not actually needing to make clothes since there is such a thing as Frenchy's, you could put the rovings in a basket and look at them fondly now and then. 

We inherited many amazing and wonderful things with our island house: three chipped and crazed china plates with rabbits running in an endless circle around the edge; a daguerreotype of two young women; an ancient padlock. But of all the treasures we inherited, the very most wonderful is an anchor made of wood and weighted with a stone. And this kind of old  home-made anchor is called a killick. Peter gave us this word.

The standing dead trees we see everywhere are called snags. This is a word I found by reading Ode to Dead Wood, from The Canadian Wildlife Federation website. Here you can learn just how valuable our snags are -- and we have so many! Like rovings, snag is a word that fits snugly with the object itself.   

Then there are the fragrant white flowers that bloom all around the house in early summer. I thought they were narcissus, but Skipper called them June lilies, a more apt name for them. Lucy Maude Montgomery writes about June lilies on Prince Edward Island, so they must be June lilies throughout the maritime provinces.   

Another name I learned from Skipper was conspicuous boulder. It's a navigational term that refers to, well, conspicuous boulders, like the huge ice age rock that teeters at Fort Point, or like The Sloop, which is the name of the conspicuous sloop-like boulder that defines the southwest corner of McNutt's.  

Wherever we go, necessary and useful words are waiting there for us. So vast is our ignorance that we don't even know they exist until we need them.  Then they come out of nowhere, where they have been waiting,  and light on our palms like butterflies, slowly opening and closing their wings.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A cold spell

On Monday we had an appointment in Liverpool. We don't make many appointments since our crossing the harbour is always dependent on the weather. But we had this one to keep. The day was calm and bright but very cold. It was fortunately a high tide when we pulled away from our ice-encrusted dock, since Greg immediately realized that the boat's gears were frozen. We scrambled to reattach Chopper to the dock before we drifted too far away into the cove. I jumped back onto the dock as Greg threw icy lines to me.  Eventually we gave up the effort to thaw out the gear box and trudged home. 

Since we had only been gone for a little while it didn't take too long to get the woodstove going and warm up the living room again. We turned on the propane space heater in the breezeway. We use it sparingly, since it uses up a lot of propane. But all our pipes are over there, in what is otherwise the unheated part of the house. It is cheaper to keep the pipes from freezing in the first place than to get a plumber to repair them later. During last week's cold spell, the pipes froze overnight and we were lucky to thaw them out without any breakage. We don't intend to let that happen again. 

Yesterday was cold but bright, with enough wind to get the turbine going. We had lots of energy. Today it's snowing again. The weather report had called for flurries but this is not a flurry. The snow is falling gently and slowly and steadily like snow in a children's book about winter. Because the air is so cold, today's snow looks like the fine airy drifts of wool the sheep leave in the brambles as they brush by them. There is no sun or wind. We will have to conserve our energy today.  Our use of electricity is very hand to mouth that way. 

Yesterday we tracked fox prints up from the bog right to the front porch. Greg thinks the space beneath the porch is one of its places of refuge.  You can also see the prints going away from the porch and back to the bog. I'm not completely sure it is a fox but it is surely some creature that walks the way a fox walks.  I wonder if I will ever catch a glimpse of the creature itself, or only see the signs of it.   

Image in the public domain. I hope the fox doesn't leap into the previous post and get the chickens. What a mess we'd have then. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chicken dreams

I have wanted to have chickens for almost as long as I can remember. My grandparents kept chickens, and I loved going down to the chicken coop when I visited them, and collecting the eggs. Of course it was an experience of childhood, untroubled by reality. Along the way in my adult life I have met other people with the same longing. When you find someone who shares your chicken dream you know you have a deep connection.

Having chickens didn't seem practical until we moved here to McNutt's Island. And we are not certain that it is practical even here. We have no neighbours who could take care of our chickens if we wanted to go away for a while in the winter. I can't imagine the chickens getting a boat ride to a chicken-sitter on the mainland. Or maybe somebody would want to live alone on an island with chickens for a couple of weeks in the winter. It's hard to say.

But realities aside, a girl can dream, and I do, and Greg aids and abets me. We've spent long conversations on various chicken coop designs and plans. We've walked around the yard, considering the best site. We've read books and consulted the internet. After much thought we've decided on the best number of chickens in our dreamy little flock.

At first I was enamoured of heritage chicken breeds. I read about them all, and lingered over their pictures, going back and forth with indecision like someone mooning over the choices on Should I go with personality or looks? Low maintenance or something a little more challenging? Then there are those breeds that produce eggs in beautiful colours of greens and blues. It was all very tempting. I settled longest on the Chanticler, a chicken with a name I loved. The Chanticler has the distinct quality of being Canadian, developed by a Cistercian monk a century ago specifically for the cold weather. It has a lovely reputation for laying lots of eggs, even in winter, and also for being placid and easy-going. A dream chicken, you might say. But I think in the end -- if it actually happens -- we will just order our chicks at Spencer's Garden Centre in Shelburne like everybody else does around here.

The chicks arrive at Spencer's in April or May. I'm not sure we will be ready to welcome them this spring, though. Especially since now we realize it isn't just minks we have to be worried about, and snakes, and the osprey and eagles and hawks, but foxes too. I imagine the fox coming out of his den beneath the pear tree some warm spring night and discovering, in his own back yard ... chicks. That would be a good moment for the fox. So the fence is going to have to be pretty well built, and so is the coop.

And then -- I know this is way down the road -- but I think about learning to slaughter an old hen. Even though my grandmother did it so I know I can. Somebody will show me how to do it, since it's a part of life here. But I worry a little about it anyway, because it's easier to be a beginner at some things than at others.
But just say we are ready when the time comes. And just say the wild animals all back off and give this project a little space, a little respect. And that the chicks grow to be lovely hens, with maybe a rooster too because I do love the sound of a rooster even though he's not much use. Oh, and just say they never stop laying, never grow old. And in the mornings I go out to the chicken coop and put my hand into the nests and bring up eggs, just like that.

Rhode Island Red image in the public domain

Monday, January 26, 2009

Looking around our house

Our house has four rooms: living room, kitchen and two bedrooms. We also have a breezeway sort of place and a bathroom.In the old days there were two bedrooms upstairs but when we arrived here there was only one.  Also in the old days there were three rooms on the first floor which we turned into one big living room, and that is pretty much where we live.  Especially in the winter.  Our house is 1300 square feet.   The original house is the living room, the bedroom above it, and the kitchen.  There's a stone cellar beneath the kitchen, also original.  The original house was built in the 1850s.  The addition was put on sometime in the early twentieth century, I guess -- it's just another old house that got moved here from somewhere else on the island.  We made some changes in the addition but not so much in the original house. 

The living room was a narrow front room, with two small bedrooms behind it. Now it's all one room. One amazing thing about the living room is the moulding below the windows. Someone -- probably William Perry, who built the house -- cared a great deal to add this lovely detail in the front room. Greg replicated the moulding beneath the back windows, and continued the chair rail around the room.  So he gave the whole big room the original "front parlour" look.  We also took down the wooden ceiling and left the exposed beams. They wouldn't have had exposed beams in the 1850s but it gives the room some height and allows warmth to float upstairs into our otherwise unheated bedroom.   Since it's all one big room, the morning light pours in the eastern windows and the afternoon light pours in the western ones.  That's Elizabeth Hyde's shepherd crook hanging on the new centre beam.  The beam is a tale in itself.

Here's our bedroom. The Goulden family, who owned the house after the Perrys, had seven sons and four daughters.  I think the sons slept up here.  Greg mostly just painted up here, but he also made additional doors into the kneewall so we could have storage space.  The quilt on the bed was Elizabeth Hyde's. It was made by a woman in Lockeport, I think. The blue desk is the teacher's desk from the McNutt's Island school.  Some of the teachers wrote their names inside the desk drawer.   

We feel a great deal of continuity with all the families who lived here before us -- the Perrys, the Gouldens, the Demings, and Elizabeth and her children.  It is somehow still their house, too.  

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fort McNutt

There are plenty of ruins on McNutt’s Island in Shelburne Harbour. Among them are old cellars, collapsed stone walls, fallen-in wells, wrecked cars and every building at the lighthouse. On the eastern side of the island, above the deep harbour channel and the sea, are a couple of enormous rusted guns. One of them lies forlornly on the ground. The other is aimed pointlessly at the forest that surrounds it. These guns are nearly all that’s left of Fort McNutt.

During World War II Fort McNutt was part of a string of North American coastal defence stations. German submarines were a real threat and coastal defence was essential, if little remembered today. Frederic W. Cross of Ontario was stationed here during the war and remembers that his 104th Coast Artillery Battery was composed chiefly of gunners from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Mr. Cross adds that there were also a company of infantry from Regiment de Quebec and Navy and RCAF signallers, and that living conditions on the island were isolated and primitive.

Last summer some new friends from Halifax stopped by on their way to the lighthouse. They brought us a present: a CD of photographs taken at Fort McNutt in 1942. Augustine (Gus) Gough of the Irish Regiment sent the pictures home to Ontario while he was stationed here. He died in 1984 and his daughter Anne Philpot the family genealogist found them years later while she was sorting through boxes of papers and photos. She had them scanned and copied to a CD to share with others. The photographs showed the army barracks, some heavy guns, a lighthouse --- and, romantically, Gus Gough’s initials and those of his wife-to-be carved into a large rock.

The photographs were a puzzle – a mysterious piece of her father’s history that she wanted to solve. Through family stories Anne knew that her father had been stationed in Nova Scotia during the war and had heard him speak of McNutt’s but didn’t know it was an island. She kept searching until finally she contacted someone in Nova Scotia who knew about Fort McNutt. Fort McNutt is not very well known anymore. So her perseverance was rewarded. And now the rest of us benefit, too.

These images belong to the family of A. J. Gough and are used here by permission. Thanks to Terry Deveau and Ashley Lohnes for making the connections.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Daily bread

When we arrived on McNutt's Island in the spring of 2007 our food situation was a little strange. We were restoring the old house, and so everything was in a kerfuffle, as they say.  We got our drinking water from a good well on the other side of the island. Greg would trundle a couple of miles along a rocky path with a five gallon water jug in a wheelbarrow, fill up the jug from the well, then trundle it home again. We had no refrigerator, since we quickly disposed of the ancient kerosene refrigerator that was here when we arrived.  Our cooking was on an old Coleman camp stove that we inherited with the house. We had a table set up in one little room off the kitchen. All our food was crowded onto that table: cans of things, mostly, and boxes of things you dump into boiling water, and crackers and peanut butter and cheese and store-bought cookies.  It was eternal-shelf-life type food.  In those days our standards were what they needed to be. 

By late summer, though, we had our propane gas range hooked up, and our refrigerator and our freezer plugged in. We had cold running water, delivered via a pipe in the ground from our very own well.   The house had leapt across the centuries in just a few months.  But our initial experience helped me appreciate how hard it must have been to keep food safely and to make meals here in the days before electricity and running water and gas ranges.   

As soon as we got the gas stove hooked up I went back to making bread. Greg is the cook around here, but I do like to make bread so I kind of hold the line there.  I hadn't made bread for years, but at one time it was a regular part of my life.  It took a few weeks to get into the rhythm of it again. But now we just don't ever buy bread.  

I'm a lazy bread maker, so I like my old Tassajara Bread recipe. Because even if you don't particularly feel like making bread, with that recipe it's so easy to get started, and then of course once you've started you've got momentum on your side. Plus, five loaves at a time!  What an abundance.  But you have to have a really big bowl. Fortunately for us, the house came complete with an old china pitcher and wash basin.  The wash basin is perfect for making bread.

I also like The Stonyfield Farm Yogurt Cookbook recipe. It's good for lazy breadmakers, too, since there's only one rising -- in the loaf pans.  And the dough is so silky in your hands when you are kneading it. It's one of the truly great sensual experiences. 

In winter the kitchen is too cold for bread to rise. So I bring the wash basin into the living room and set it on my work table near the woodstove. I particularly enjoy the look of dough rising in a bowl next to a flat bed scanner.  Kinda says it all.

Fast & Easy Yogurt Bread from The Stonyfield Farm Yogurt Cookbook

1 1/2 tablespoons yeast
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup plain yogurt
7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Dissolve the yeast and honey in the warm water and set the mixture aside to proof for ten minutes. Add the salt and yogurt to the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Sift the flour and add it gradually, stirring it in until you can no longer stir. 

Remove the dough to a floured board and knead for five to ten minutes, slowly working in the remaining flour. Divide the dough in half, form 2 loaves, and place each in a greased 8x4 inch loaf pan. Let the dough rise in a warm place for 50 minutes or until it comes to the tops of the pans. 

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until the loaves are browned and sound hollow when tapped. Remove loaves from the pans and cool on a rack. If you want a soft crust, brush the tops of the warm loaves with butter. 

Yield: 2 loaves. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Finding Nova Scotia

Greg's article, "Finding Nova Scotia," has been published in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Coastal Life in western Nova Scotia. It's only the second issue of this new lifestyle magazine, which provides an upbeat focus on a fascinating and often overlooked part of Nova Scotia. We are so glad that Greg is a part of this new venture.  It's a true pleasure to get to know the managing editor, Sandra Phinney, who is everything you would hope for in an editor, both encouraging and professional. Coastal Life meets a need, since there aren't enough opportunities for this region to shine. Issues are flying off the newstands.

And check out the cover!

Cold water birds

In Shelburne yesterday Greg met the new mayor, Al Delaney, so he could take his photograph for an upcoming article in Coastal Life.  I tagged along. We went out to the commercial wharf so they could have a picture of Shelburne Harbour's potential. 

A loon floated peaceably in calm water near the wharf. He disappeared for a long time while I waited to watch him resurface. It's amazing how they are at home both beneath the water and in the sky. "The old folks around here call it a salt water loon," Al told me, "but it's a common loon -- the same whether it's in a lake or the ocean." That was something I had wondered about so I was glad to know.  A loon is a loon. We've been seeing more of them in the past few weeks.  Later I read in Birds of Nova Scotia that the loon winters on the sea and goes back to the lakes as soon as the ice has melted there.  We have loons in the cove in the warm months, too, but the book tells me they must be non-breeders, who don't return to the lakes. We have been seeing more loons because the lakes are frozen now and so they can't dive for food there.  

There are ice floes at Fort Point in Gunning Cove, where we dock on the mainland, and our boat crunched up against them on the way in. Peter told us last week that the wind will push the ice from the harbour into Gunning Cove, where it collects. Then you have to be very careful to get out again. The lobstermen turn their boats around when they dock for the night, so they'll be heading out bow first and can break up the ice with their bows. Otherwise, if you back up as usual, you may damage your propeller blades. As we were leaving for home, I leaned out over the stern and poked at the ice floes around Chopper with the gaff. I thought I would push them out of the way. But they are amazingly thick and heavy.  I think they could do a lot of damage.

On the way home we watched buffleheads zipping around in the very cold water of the harbour. Birds of Nova Scotia says that buffleheads are uncommon here in winter.   I'm glad they are hanging out in Shelburne Harbour, because they are great looking birds -- diving ducks -- and fun to watch.  

Images from Birds of Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Website

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The black pilots

The black pilots came to Port Roseway in spring of 1783, among the first African Americans to make passage to Nova Scotia. Their individual stories are recorded in The Book of Negroes, that detailed list of all the former slaves who threw their lot with the British in the American Revolution, escaping slavery, now sailing away to this uncertain freedom.

James Robertson was forty nine years old then, a thin man who had escaped from Captain Paul Layon in Portsmouth Virginia. With him were his wife Betsey, forty six years old, and their son James, two and a half, a small boy. Betsey had escaped slavery with her husband.

James Jackson was fifty, thin, escaped from Robert Tucker of Norfolk Virginia. Jackson served the British cause with Lord Dunmore. After Jackson are listed Judith Jackson, most likely his wife, twenty four years old, and Harry Jackson, eight -- a good little boy, the record adds.

London Jackson was thirty two, a stout fellow-- stout meant strong and healthy -- who had escaped from William Ballad of Hampton Virginia. Three more members of the Jackson family come next, though their relationships are not clear. Sebro and her infant child Zolpher travelled to Port Roseway on another ship, but are listed here. Nelly, thirty three and stout, is probably London's wife, since she escaped from slavery in Hampton Virginia at the same time he did.

Dick Leich was twenty eight, escaped from Manney Goddin of Nansemond Virginia. Ruth Leich was twenty and her sister Grace was seventeen. They had both escaped from Colonel Conel of Hampton Virginia. Ruth and Grace could be Dick's sisters, or maybe they are his sister and his wife.

These four men are described as pilots in The Book of Negroes. They all came from the same area along the mouth of the James River as it flows into Chesapeake Bay. Their knowledge of the local waters was irreplaceable. They risked everything to put that knowledge to work for the British, who had promised them freedom if they did.

It's likely that these families and households, all from the same place, had ties of kinship or relationship strong enough to make them want to stay together and take care of each other. Maybe their relationships had begun in the intertwined life of James River plantations. As pilots along the James and into Chesapeake Bay, the men would have been crucially-positioned conductors of a powerful slave grapevine, in on everything. They may have been instrumental in facilitating escapes, not only of their own families, but also of friends and neighbours.

Or maybe they found each other later, in New York City, refugees seeking the comfort of those who shared the common experience of a James River plantation culture. However they knew each other, by the time they stepped on board the Ship Ann, bound for Port Roseway, they had formed a protective extended family. They were looking out for each other.

The raw Nova Scotia town of Shelburne would need pilots to navigate vessels safely through its long harbour. Those pilots would need to live where the harbour opened into the Atlantic, where a goods-laden schooner could anchor and wait until a pilot rowed out to board and guide the ship into Shelburne. And when you look at the Old Grant Map of McNutt's Island, that's exactly where the pilots are located.

They were not given four lots on the island, the fifty acres apiece that was promised to all who had risked their lives in service to the British. Instead their four households shared one fifty acre lot.

But did they really live here, on McNutt's Island? I think they did, at least for a while, though I haven't discovered any positive documentation. But it makes sense. Life on the island would have been hard, but it was hard for African Americans in Shelburne and Birchtown and in some ways harder there. And the pilots were likely paid for their services, so they would have income. In their own small community they could have cleared forest, built shelter, established a life. It's dark winter as I write this, and difficult to imagine a small group of former slaves enduring the cold winds and stony ground of the island's isolated eastern side, with very few other people living anywhere on the island. But maybe they felt safe in this extended family they had created for themselves, out in the forest.

In 1792 most black settlers in the Shelburne area sailed away to a new life in Sierra Leone. Nova Scotia had been brutal, and many had not survived. At least one of the pilots, James Robertson, took up a lot in Freetown, the new settlement. And maybe little James Robertson lived to grow up in Sierra Leone, an astonishing journey from slavery to freedom, from the James River to Nova Scotia and on to the shining promise of Africa, full circle.

Maybe he lived a long time, and maybe when he was an old man he sat sometimes in the warm African sun and remembered his childhood on that Nova Scotia island. If he did, maybe his memories held at least some moments of joy or wonder: a father's laugh or mother's smile, a special stone picked up along the shore, a taste of wild raspberries, the glimpse of a seal poking her head out of the waves.

There's a bit of ground on the eastern side of McNutt's that holds a memory of this journey to freedom. You can stand on a high cliff there and look out across the Atlantic, south and east toward Sierra Leone, and try to imagine it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Evidence of things not seen

"There are tracks right next to the porch," Greg pointed out the window. The snow was not fresh but we hadn't tramped around in it much. Now we could see the tracks there, and once we started looking we saw more tracks leading toward a shed, crossing the familiar tracks of the deer.  

Outside we found tracks leading to the picket fence, then along the narrow space next to the house, in what is supposedly a protected wildflower garden.  We saw tracks leading to a stone wall, and between a stone wall and a hollow beneath the old pear tree. Those tracks looked as if the animal had entered a den under the pear tree. I remembered that last spring we had heard eerie sounds coming from beneath the pear tree. Now I wondered whether the sounds had been from a nest of new-borns. 

But new-born what?  Searching the internet for clues, we discovered that these tracks were what's called "directly registered," meaning the hind feet strike on top of the front feet tracks, so that there's a single line of tracks.  Only cats and foxes leave this pattern.  Both live in the Tobeatic Wilderness in southwest Nova Scotia and have been seen closer to Shelburne. There have been rumours of a bobcat sighting on the island. And I did think I glimpsed a fox the first summer we were here. But after somebody told me there weren't any here,  I closed my mind to the fox. 

Most of the time I blithely go around assuming that what I see is all there is to see.  But since I don't know what to look for I miss seeing all kinds of things. Or if I see something unusual I reject it because it doesn't fit with what I think I know.  This is what I fondly think of as my rational self.  The animal tracks remind me how little of the world I see, how narrow is my vision.

We knew that the deer and the sheep come by here at night and that snakes are in hibernation beneath the house.  But until today I didn't realize that there are other wild animals -- unknown wild animals --  that encircle our house in the darkness, like magical dreams, while we sleep. They have been walking around the house since it was built, I think.  

They are among our nearest neighbours even though we've never met.  Sometimes they leave a sign that they were here, and once in a long while we notice it. 


Friday, January 16, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Colour of winter

The island has put on its seasonal colours even though we are not yet into winter's depths. My eyes are slowly adjusting to a world of grey, white, brown and green.  The island's pied and dappled beauty is subtle now.  I have to look more closely than in easier seasons to take it in. 

Grey-green lichens stipple the trees and the stone walls and the boulders. The greens of the mosses are softer shades now, tending more toward brown. Three or four kinds of ferns cover the island in summer, but now they are cinnamon against the grey stone walls.   

A birch tree stands out against the constant background of dark green spruce. Its bare branches claim close attention.  Today it receives the close attention of some little bird searching for insects. The chickadee -- if it is a chickadee--is grey and black and white, the colours of the tree. 

Emerging boulders poke their rounded forms out of the earth, ancient creatures being slowly born. You can see them more clearly now that they are not hidden in grasses and wildflowers. They are bronze and grey in a field of white.      

The sky and the sea are grey today, but that word hardly describes their variety. The sea is pewter, its waves flowing peacefully into the shore.  In an hour it will be something else entirely, though I do not know what. The Nova Scotia sky is a holy thing, high and astonishing, always changing. There is no moment when it is not worth your while to look up. This must be because the sea reflects the sky, so that even on the dullest day we live in a bowl filled with light. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Garden dreams

I didn't think I would grow flowers here. The wild sheep wander around eating whatever they please, so I thought it would be a bit pointless unless I wanted to provide new taste treats for them. They ignore some flowers -- the foxgloves down in the lower apple grove, the blue flag iris along the shore, the wild roses, the spring daffodils and late summer goldenrod -- and they eat the red clover and the ox eye daisies whether I want them to or not. I thought I would just live with it. Besides, we put in a vegetable garden -- a big one -- last summer. How many gardens does one person need?

Then Greg put a picket fence around the side of the house, with gates to keep the sheep out. (Please don't ask where the fence came from. It was of no use at all where it was before.) And, mysteriously, an entire bed of mallows sprang up within this fence, where I had dug beds the summer before but not planted anything. They stood gracefully nodding their pink and white heads all summer long. Those mallows got me thinking that I might have just the tiniest little flower garden after all.

So late in the summer I moved them around and gave them more space. Then I moved some mullein inside the fence. I love their broad fuzzy grey leaves, and the bees are so glad to cling to those yellow spires, and I thought a patch of it would look good next to the narrow walk that Greg had made with the old chimney bricks.  

I dug up some yarrow and put it inside the fence, where it flourished as it never had in the field. One day a bold lamb walked through the open gate and in a few minutes had eaten all the yarrow flowers. That's how I learned that sheep like yarrow, and also that it had been doing well because nobody had been eating it. Come to think of it, maybe sheep like mallows, too. After that we did a better job of keeping the gate closed.

Then I sat on the wooden bench by the side door in the sun and dreamed. I would gather more island wildflowers and put them into the little garden. I didn't have any money to spend at Spencer's Garden Centre in Shelburne, much as I love wandering around there. So making a garden of local wildflowers fit our frugal life. And I wanted to collect them into one place where we could see them every day. That clump of white foxglove down in the lower orchard was a gorgeous sight, but we hardly ever noticed it in our comings and goings.  And I wanted flowers that were already at home.

So in late fall I transplanted goldenrod and foxglove and blue iris and orange day lilies and violets and asters -- whatever I could find. Some will do well inside the picket fence and some will not, I guess. It was only out of respect for Greg that I didn't include any Canadian thistle. Our opinions differ on that plant. There was phlox growing in the stone cellar foundation of Benjamin McNutt's house. I climbed down in there and dug up some of it, and also collected its feathery seeds. At least I hope that's what I got.  We'll find out when spring comes. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Another winter walk

"You really need to go out there and see the walnut tree," Greg told me late this morning. I had been assuming otherwise: that I really didn't need to go out there for any reason.  It's not that it's especially cold, and it isn't windy so there's no wind chill factor. 

But the snow came down all Sunday, silent and magical and fresh. And as the day progressed I became accustomed to my hibernation.  I was okay with being inside by the woodstove for the rest of the winter.  I figured until spring I could get the idea pretty well by looking out the window.

Out I went, though, because it did sound too good to miss.  And it was.  Now, dear reader, through the magic of technology you can take a winter walk on McNutt's Island too. 

The walnut tree is one of two that Elizabeth Hyde planted here many years ago.  The red squirrels are the actual owners of this tree.  Last fall I harvested as many walnuts as they allowed me.  There were moments when we negotiated walnut to walnut.  It was tense but respectful. Today snow outlines the tree's structure.

My wildlife guide says this is a bracket fungus. My wildlife guide does not tell me that in the summer fairies and elves sit on these ledges, which give them an excellent view of the harbour. But of course this time of year there are no fairies or elves to be seen anywhere.  They may be small but they're not stupid.
The last picture is looking down the main road toward the north end of the island. You can see the harbour off in the distance.  Trees are down across the road, and will be cleared up when the McNutt's Island road crew gets around to it. This is the road that was cut out of the forest in the late 1780s when the lighthouse was built on the southern end. I imagine it looks about the same today as it did then. The only travelers on this road today were the deer.  Fallen trees do not bother them.

Okay, time for hot chocolate.

Monday, January 12, 2009

McNutt's geography: Des Barres navigational charts

These beautiful navigational charts of Port Campbell, as it was then known, were made by J.F.W. Des Barres in 1776. They show what the area was like before the Loyalists arrived in 1783 and 1784.  The larger area map shows nothing at all where the Town of Shelburne now stands, in the northeastern corner of the inner harbour.  Gunning Cove was already a settlement, though.  And you can see a few more pale blue plots of occupied land scattered along the western shore of the harbour. 

The early settlers were New Englanders who moved up from Cape Cod in the 1760s, and possibly Ulstermen who arrived under the auspices of Alexander McNutt's New Jerusalem scheme. The New Englanders were experienced fishermen who knew this area well before they moved here. They had been fishing cod in these waters for many generations. The area map gives a sense of how isolated and remote this part of Nova Scotia was then.   

A sea captain recently explained to me that many places in the world are called False Passage, so that ships will know not to go there.  This False Passage is too shallow for large vessels, though it's okay for lobster boats.  A couple of weeks ago, though, a very experienced lobsterman got his boat stuck on the low tide in the passage and had to bide his time until the tide came up again. Which it always does.  

The detailed map of Roseneath Island gives an accurate picture of the coast line and shows the higher elevations on the eastern side and the extent of forest.  You can see the McNutt settlement on the north end of the island, near Carolina Beach.  It looks like the McNutts had the island all to themselves.  

J.F.W. Des Barres published four volumes of his maps of the North American coastline in The Atlantic Neptune  c. 1781.  Thanks to Terry Deveau for sharing these maps with me. They are in the public domain.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New beginning

For several years our daughter has given us a beautiful calendar by artist Nikki McClure. Each month has a word -- to contemplate, or to find connections with, or to just make us say, "hunh." January's word is Fix. To which I say, "hunh." Because we are fixing things around here, as it turns out. The illustration is of someone using twine to repair the handle of a rake.That’s something I have actually done in the last two years, though never before that.We lived busy urban lives in the US when Amanda first began to give us these calendars.  Back then I thought each month’s print showed a sort of dream, something beautiful but imaginary and unattainable, something to look at and admire.

Now each January we hang the new calendar in our old island kitchen. We have tried not to change very much in the kitchen of our 1850s house. Having electricity and running water in the kitchen is lovely, though. The walls are insulated gyp-rock now, instead of plaster, above the moulding. But the moulding is original. The kitchen utensils hanging from the hooks were here when we arrived.  Greg has painted them black so now they are objects of art, kind of.  Since we have mice the jars on the shelf are the most practical way to keep dry food.

Nikki McClure's calendars honour the quiet beauty of the seasons and simple experiences of life. Since we moved to McNutt's Island in 2007, it’s odd how much our lives have become like her calendar illustrations. Her art no longer seems to me like a dream. She illustrates our new reality. To which I say, “hunh.”

Nikki gave me permission to use this image.  

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gift from the sea

We are like Robinson Crusoe here, out shore-shopping to see what we can pick up for little or nothing. Since anything we get on the mainland has to be carried over to the island in a multi-stage process, when we find something washed up on the shore it's like special delivery. 

Bait bags hold the chunks of frozen fish that lures lobsters into a trap, way down there at the bottom of the sea. But this one either made a dramatic escape itself or fell overboard on the way home. And it wasn't empty, either. At no additional cost it came accessorized with a bit of seaweed and a tiny feather. Very chic. We could find a lot of bait bags if we put our minds to it, and maybe we will. 

A lobsterman we know, who is too shy and retiring to be named, used to pay his own kids a dollar for every bait bag they scavenged on the island.  But he doesn't do that anymore.  So now they just lie out on the rocks, unloved and unclaimed (the bait bags, not the kids). Abandoned bait bags are a consequence of the current world-wide economic tailspin that not too many people have thought about yet.  

Ever the optimist, Greg says he'll start a market for bait bag purses. He is certain they will be a big hit as a bait bag is just the right size to hold a cell phone, and it has a wrist strap.  And bait bags come in great colours: this teal blue, and also neon orange, lime green and taxicab yellow.  


Friday, January 9, 2009

Silent season

Each day here gives us something deeper than the day before. The silence that surrounds us today is deeper than yesterday's, and tomorrow's may well be deeper yet. It is not only that we have no visitors and no phone calls. It is not only that bit by bit we have journeyed away from what passes for television evening news and no longer bother to pick up videos in town.

One day this week as soon as Greg came in from chopping wood the snow turned to freezing rain and glittering panes of ice slicked the back windows. Everything outside was glazed -- stones, branches, the indented prints of deer hooves in snow. Even the harbour water looked still as ice, until a northeast wind blew it away from the cove in graceful sheets.

I read an old newspaper article about why there are so many Buddhists in Nova Scotia. I have my own half-formed ideas, something about the way the province lies out here on the very edge of North America, something about the way its every boundary is washed by salt waves, something about its interior forest, its silence.

But the article said it was the weather. A Tibetan teacher urged his students to move to Nova Scotia many years ago because the weather here -- so dramatic and changeable -- would keep them on their toes, awake to the forces of the world. 

Each day's gifts are unexpected, as small as a spot of orange lichen on a grey rock, as quick as the midnight moon glimpsed through rushing clouds. We are learning to look for gifts that will tumble upon us all day even though we do not know what they will be. Every day, out here where nothing ever happens, we are a little bit more awake to the world than we were the day before.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Windy garden

Here's the vegetable garden earlier this week. You can see strips from an old sheet tied to to the top of the garden fence. The wind is lifting them up, giving the empty garden a certain liveliness.

It was my original intention to help the deer see the deer fence by letting the strips of cloth wave around in front of them. Last summer the deer were sometimes in too much of a hurry or feeling too exuberant to notice the fence. Which after all is nothing but an old fish net attached to spruce poles. The wind blows through that net just the way water used to flow through it. It's not a brick wall. I'm sure the deer would have noticed a brick wall. So they ran right through it several times, in one side and out the other, never even stopping to sample the turnips or peas.

I would come out in the morning and find an entrance hole and an exit hole, one on each side of the garden. Then I'd get the twine or whatever and mend the holes. Now the fish net has a lovely patched quality -- much better than before. Greg hung old Styrofoam buoys in front of the net. The buoys don't wiggle and wave, though. So we thought motion would help, and I tied up the strips of cloth.

We need these strips of cloth because the deer see the world very differently than we do. To us, that's our garden there, and it has a gate and a fence and please don't come in unless you are invited. To them it's the place they have always bounded through on their way from the apple orchard to the forest.

I hung up the cloth strips to remind the deer about the fence. But they have become a reminder for me, too -- about how much otherness the world holds in its large embrace. When the wind lifts them up they are like prayer flags, visible signs of a compassion that no fence can stop, that flows right on through and touches everything, everybody, everywhere.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Winter robins

We've had a couple of dozen robins hanging around since the weekend. On Sunday they flew up into the oak tree and spread out over patches of ground where the wind had blown the snow away. They are a serious bunch in those distinguished vests of theirs, demonstrating quite a work ethic, like bankers in a better era. I almost expect to see each one wearing a tiny watch chain.

They don't seem to pay attention to time though. Even though it's well past the season to opt for someplace warmer they seem content to be here. When we saw the same thing last winter I worriedly emailed Christopher Majka at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax. He calmed me down by replying that groups of robins often stayed in Nova Scotia through the cold season. Odd as it sounds, it appears this is where they choose to be.

But I wondered what they could find to eat. I guessed they were getting insects in the trees, but surely the worms were hidden deep beneath the frozen earth. My knowledge of the world may be too dependent on children's books, since I do always think of robins pulling up worms. Being foolish and wrong-headed and filled with sympathy, I threw two cups of bird seed out on the broken winter grass. But my offering was beneath them and they ignored it.

Then today I was down at the shore at low tide. I went looking for our gaff, which had fallen off the boat a few weeks ago and which Radar said he thought he had seen washed up past the fish house. I didn't find the gaff, but I did find the robins. They were browsing rocky crevices and seaweed and mud banks below the high tide line, and finding there, I guess, a return well worth their effort.

Image in the public domain.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Epistolary friendship

We don't have too many friends on the island, at least not this time of year. Last winter we had about half a dozen visits between mid December and May, and most of those were Skipper and Radar getting us out of some jam or other.

But it turns out we can have friendships in spite of our insularity. I had admired Carla Allen's gardening column in the local papers and when I quoted her on seaweed I sent her a link. That's like making a call on someone in nineteenth century England and leaving your card. Carla returned the email and sent me the link to her new blog, which is quirky and enchanting and gives the reader a feel for the strangeness and the beauty which is southwestern Nova Scotia. You, dear reader, can find it here. We agreed to be each other's followers, which sounds vaguely cultish.

An epistolary friendship is different from the kind of friendship where you do things together and share experiences and enjoy each other's company. Instead of getting all that, you learn about someone's interior self. You understand more about their ways of thinking and expression, of how they see the world. You get to know them as reflective people even if you don't exactly know what they look like. Something's missing, of course -- the physical person -- but something's gained, too.It's a different kind of friendship, one to appreciate.

Epistolary friendships are in great resurgence now thanks to the internet. Only a few decades ago people were bemoaning the fact that there would be no more written record of ordinary daily life, since all communication was taking place on the phone. I guess we don't need to worry about that anymore.

Mary Cassatt, The Letter, 1890/1891

January light

The day dawns cold, in a pale wash of high sky with undertones of pink. The island is glass covered: a layer of ice that shatters beneath your step. The whole island, seen from a distance today, would look like a zillion carat diamond displayed on the Tiffany blue velvet of the harbour’s water.

I take a short trip down to the shore to get some sea water for the lobsters who have dropped in unexpectedly for dinner. They should have a happy afternoon, swimming around in our old lobster pot, not knowing it’s a lobster pot, thinking instead, perhaps, that it’s a very small sea.

But at the water’s edge a deep winter silence settles around me. There are no waves today, but the tide ebbs and flows in quiet currents over the rocks. The water is so clear that I can see the bottom of the cove here, as it declines from the shore, at first in inches, and gradually out to a depth of a foot or so before it’s lost in darkness. Gold ribbons of refracted sunlight illuminate an underwater world growing on submerged rocks. Forests of seaweed loom over limpet villages and moss meadows, all haloed with the rhythmic touch of streaming light. The cove is so quiet that I hear a susurration of ebbing water as it streams through the seaweed, like a long, slow breathing, like a song.

Small air balloons in the seaweed buoy its tendrils on the surface and allow it to float effortlessly in the sunlight. So it remains securely anchored to the rocks below yet fans out above to receive sun’s warm blessing. Its underwater tangle of gently waving branches harbours a myriad of tiny hidden creatures: egg sacs and miniscule baby lobsters, fish larvae, periwinkles. Maybe it’s their singing I hear on the ebb tide.

In the cove a loon surfaces, floats, calls, then dives. He swims beneath the surface, searching for his dinner, inhabitant of a mysterious world I can only glimpse. If I were to journey out along the length of the dock I could see the underwater cove more deeply, but instead I’m rooted here, standing on a rock, watching and listening for all I’m worth, held fast as heaven touches the sea, this shallow angle as much as I can take in, like all mortals who must shade their eyes in the presence of something holy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Autographed house

Here is William Acker Perry's signature etched in the kitchen window. It is his autograph, written with elegant loops and swirls. He was proud of the house he had made, I think, and so like an artist he signed it.

William's parents, Jonathan and Martha Hagar Perry, married in 1834 and settled on the island soon after that. William was born here in 1837, the second of their nine children. You can still see the stone cellar of the first house the Perrys built, below the lower orchard, and the traces of their first stone walls. For some thirty years they raised their family there, and after Martha died Jonathan remarried and lived another twenty years in the old house. After his death one of his married daughters kept on living there until she and her husband moved away to Boston in around 1900.

William and his brothers and sisters were island born and grew up along this shore. By then the main road and the lower road had been cut out of the forest, and fields cleared, and the lighthouse built. Other families had settled on the cove and along the southern shore between the cove and the lighthouse. There were pastures and gardens and orchards, stone walls and wells, pigs and chickens and oxen and cows, flocks of sheep, short cuts and paths, neighbours and neighbourly ways, and always the sea.

William became a fisherman like his father, and together, I think, they built this house when he was a young man, before he married Abigail Bower. William and Abigail lived together in the new house -- so promising a beginning -- for only three years, when she died. They had no children.

A few years later William married Ann Maria Allen from Lockeport. They had five children in this house, all girls. Florence Abigail was the oldest, born the year after her parents married, and Annie Maria three years after that. Both girls married fishermen, like their father and their grandfather, and they both married young, at seventeen and eighteen. They both had island weddings, most likely in this very house.

The third daughter, Bertha Eugenee, was born when the older two were five and three. They would have made a happy trio of girls to greet their father when he came home from the sea. Bertha Eugenee died when she was nineteen months old, of scarlet fever that swept the area that month. Helen Catherine came next, less than a year after Bertha Eugenee died. So then there were three daughters again, and a wash of sadness.

The fifth Perry daughter, Augusta Jane, was younger by sixteen years than Helen. Helen Catherine and Augusta Jane were spinsters. Maybe they continued to live with their parents and take care of them. It's an odd symmetry: the first two daughters married young and blossoming into family life, the middle daughter dying, the youngest two living into great old age unmarried.

When Ann Maria was dying in 1911, William sold the house to James and Bertha Goulden and they moved across the harbour. William -- island born and bred -- -- lived in Churchover for another six years, gazing over the water at McNutt's. He was eighty when he died. The couple are buried at St. Paul's United Church in Carleton Village, just across the harbour, with all their daughters.

For most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth -- for the better part of a century -- this house and the house below the orchard were anchors of a sort, the scene of births and deaths and courtships and weddings and wakes. Three or four generations of ordinary island life went on here in that quiet daily way that we rarely pay any attention to until afterward.

The autographed house held so many daughters then, though they have left no such certain mark that I have found. Sometimes at twilight I think I see young girls' dreams floating along the rafters and collecting in ceiling corners, but maybe they are only cobwebs.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's all about wood

It was about this time last year that we read the journal kept by Elizabeth Hyde, who lived here before we did. Mostly she lived here in the summers, but in the winter of 1984/1985 she stayed over, and wrote about her experience. Elizabeth was here by herself for most of the winter, and the house had no electricity or running water then. Many of her journal entries were focused on the basic tasks of survival. A friend of hers, Anne Priest, read Elizabeth's journal at about the same time we did. Her comment to us was: "It's all about wood!"

It's true for us too, even though we have it plenty easier than Elizabeth did. The house is still heated with wood, though our Pacific Energy stove is much more efficient than the old cast iron number Elizabeth used. Greg spends most of his outdoors time felling trees, cutting logs, carting them to the wood pile and splitting them. He's working on next winter's wood, a good sign of our progress. This time last winter we were using it as fast as it could get thrown on the wood pile. I call him The Woodcutter, as it has a nice Brothers Grimm ring to it.

My task is to resupply the log holders next to the wood stove. I do this every day. I have built up an extra supply in the breezeway in case we get a patch of wet weather. Our wood pile is protected, but not very well, with plastic sheeting that blows off in spite of the many many logs and rocks I have piled on top.

Before Elizabeth bought the house, the back wing (an old building that had been attached to the house at some point) was a woodshed. In those days you could walk from the kitchen into the woodshed without going outside, and your wood was always dry. The old fellers had their priorities straight. Elizabeth turned the shed into what she laughingly called the guest wing, and we followed her direction. We put the plumbing over there, and made a laundry/mud room/breezeway, bathroom, closet and bedroom in that space. Some days I think we ought to turn it back into a woodshed.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What's for dinner?

(from The White House Cook Book, 1907, that belonged to Greg's Nana Smith.)

Before hunting season last fall, Mark and Sid and Sid's son came by to ask whether it was okay if they hunted in the old pasture. It's an odd ten acres -- mostly forest, of course -- on the other side of the island. Somehow it belongs to us. It isn't exactly accessible, and once you get there all you can see is an old pasture being rapidly devoured by young spruce trees, even as you watch. One old timer told us it was where the community-owned ox was kept when nobody needed him, back in the day. We don't visit too often.

But Mark and Sid told us that the old pasture was part of the route the deer used to go back and forth from one side of the island to the other. If they could sit up there they would be likely to get a deer. Sure, we told them.

We love watching the deer in every season of the year. We admire their beauty and their nimble ways. I had no idea until I saw it that a deer would actually stand up on his hind legs to reach an apple on a tree. It's a joy to see a small group grazing peacefully near the stone walls or bounding through the bog on a summer evening. It's less of a joy to repair the deer fence around the vegetable garden after they have run through it, but I don't mind. The deer have been here much longer than we have. Their presence makes the island more of a magical place.

But we appreciate the hunters, too, and their long relationship with the island's deer. We observe their time-consuming preparations in October, as they repair the deer blinds and get everything ready. And we admire their successes in November.

Last week messengers carrying a huge box of frozen deer meat pounded on the door. After they left we opened the box and put everything away in the freezer: roasts, chops, and steaks, maybe twenty pounds of island venison. The hunters had been more than generous to us.

Tonight Greg is making venison roast. He'll make slits in the roast and insert garlic slivers. He'll rub on olive oil and pat on herbs from our garden, thyme and oregano that have been drying on the old oar in the breezeway. He's also making baked buttercup squash with walnut maple stuffing. I grew the buttercup squash in the garden last summer, and it's been sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. Cliff and Ardith made the maple syrup, and I harvested the walnuts. We'll have swiss chard, also from last summer's garden, sauteed with garlic and ginger. And, of course, our apple cider.

How we eat now is a world away from how I've eaten all my life before coming to the island. It's a revelation to be so intimately aware of the meal on the table. Today I'm especially grateful to both the island's deer and the hunters, not to mention the cook.

Friday, January 2, 2009

cold day

McNutt's geography: Old Grant Plan

The Loyalists, so called because they had been loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution, arrived in Port Roseway (soon to be renamed Shelburne) in 1783 and 1784. They were a huge influx of need, overwhelming the skimpy resources put in place by the colonial government. Among the promises made to them had been a town lot and a farm lot for each household. Unfortunately there was little land suitable for farming near the newly-named town. The island’s two thousand acres, though mostly forested, would provide the requisite farm lots for thirty five Loyalists.

Surveyor Benjamin Marston writes in his diary of his days spent on the island surveying the lots, April 23 - 26, 1784. The Old Grant Plan, the result of Benjamin Marston’s 1784 survey, lays down the definitions of McNutt’s as they exist today.

At the unforested granite southern tip of the island, some one hundred acres were reserved for the building of a lighthouse. Along the rocky eastern edge, overlooking the deep eastern channel into Shelburne, two sites were reserved for the engineers of the War Department. The smaller reserved lot overlooked the Tea Chest, a large rock on the Shelburne side of the harbor. The larger reserved lot was opposite Government Point, a promontory that marked the entrance into the eastern channel.

The Old Grant Plan contains descriptive comments which are still accurate today. What we call the Point, where the sheep graze seaweed in winter, is described as a beach of small stones, dry at low water. McNutt's house is designated at the location where you can still see its cellar foundation. The "bold rocky shore" on the eastern side is the place where a lobster boat wrecked a few weeks ago. Our house is located on what was Lot #1, land granted to Moses Pitcher.

It seems that the Loyalists did not take up these island assignments. For the most part the Loyalists so hurriedly deposited in Shelburne had moved on within a few years: into New Brunswick, which seemed to offer something better than this, or back into the United States if they could, or (for the wealthy) on to England or the Caribbean. Of the some three thousand African Americans, former slaves who had bought their freedom by casting their lot with the British, and whose reward was so meager, more than two thirds of those who survived their harsh Nova Scotia experience sailed away in 1792 to the promise of Sierra Leone.

According to the Old Grant Plan, four black Loyalists, who had served the British by piloting them along the Virginia shores of Chesapeake Bay, were granted one fifty acre plot to divide among themselves. It is thought that the black pilots did live on the island lots granted to them and piloted ships into Shelburne from their vantage point at the mouth of the deep eastern channel. It would be extraordinary if former slaves of the American South became the inhabitants of this island even for a brief time in their remarkable journey. I hope I can find out more about it.

The poll tax of 1791 shows only four extended families associated with the island, including members of the McNutt family. They were boat owners, mariners, farmers, and a cooper. The island’s cove may have been a place where shallops were built. There was said to have been a cooperage. And enough land had been cleared by then to support some farming.

The diary of surveyor Benjamin Marston is housed at The University of New Brunswick. You can read it online here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Honeysuckle and snow

Last summer I had seen a honeysuckle flourishing over the ruins of the island's old hotel. Yes, curiously, McNutt's had a hotel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A trumpet honeysuckle vine twisted over the remaining pile of lath, shingle and boards, its red and yellow flowers like little jewels amid the rubble. When I looked it up I learned that it was a native honeysuckle, not the fragrant Japanese variety, and that it was beloved by bees and hummingbirds. We had two hummingbirds last summer, and they made me lust after more.

In the fall I put a few vines into a mason jar with water, and -- as an experiment -- put a few directly into the ground, leaning against the picket fence. I watched the vines in the mason jar as the leaves gradually withered and turned brown. For several weeks nothing seemed to be happening. I nearly lost patience and threw them out but Greg stayed my hand. Then, around Christmas, I saw some root growth. Then I saw tiny green leaves. When I checked outside at the picket fence, I saw that the honeysuckle vines had put forth tiny dark red nodes.

Some might say, Oh, so what? A honeysuckle, for heaven's sake. How could it not grow? But then they'd be missing just how amazing it is to see tiny green leaves on the first day of a new year, all this furled-up promise.

Wind sculpting snow

Greg's post:

The wind is sculpting today’s snowy landscape.  Yesterday, the Baccaro Point weather station prepared us for 20 centimeters of snow, which to my American mind translates to something like a foot.  But as I look out my window this morning, the wind has made that prediction meaningless.  Across our front yard there is hardly any snow at all.  Just a dusting, some would say.  But looking out the back kitchen window, a snow bank blocks the view.  Behind the living room, the wind has sculpted an odd pinnacle standing alone, its slopes reminiscent of some far off and famous climber’s mountain.  Yet surrounding it is that mere dusting I mentioned before.  In the side yard, the wheel barrow stands in one-inch deep snow, while the ATV struggles to look over the bank that threatens to bury it.

Obviously, the wind is having fun today.  It plays with our assumptions. It mocks our pretentions.  It does what it wants to do, glancing whimsically back at us from time to time to make sure we are still watching from inside our  snow-lapped little house.