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, February 28, 2009

Island landscape

Here are some of the lobster cages washed up on The Point and along the cobble beach south of The Point.  Greg is walking along wondering what he can make out of them. From seaweed to trashed cages, Carla Allen helps me recognize the particular wonders of Nova Scotia. 

Friday, February 27, 2009


We are surrounded by darkness here. There is no ambient light. Nothing mediates our experience of the sky on a moonless, cloudless night. It is beautiful, yes, stunningly so. In summer I gaze upward in awe and swear I'll learn more constellations so I can understand a bit of this overhead wildness, get my bearings and find my way around. 

It's just the tiniest shift, though, from awe to terror. In winter the stars are cold glittering points, beaming messages billions of years late from a place that no longer exists. The night sky swirls and dips and lurches. Constellations swing from place to place, planets reel across the heavens, the moon rises and sets in random places along the edge of a dark looming endless bowl. The Milky Way slides across the sky from angle to angle, a loose belt in the engine of the universe. There is nothing you can count on up there, except for a cold glitter coming to you forever from before time began. 

The immensity of this unmediated sky disorients and terrifies me. The stars remind me of that essential dust which is my beginning and my end. Remember you are dust, the stars sing silently. On cold starry nights I'd rather be inside.     

But then it's also just the tiniest shift from terror to awe. Their cosmic song is a promise of some unimaginable goings-on beyond our ephemeral selves.  The starry night will receive our dust, our molecules, our glittering motes and beams, and we shall be at once nothing at all and at one with all, as it all swirls on. 


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lull between two woodpiles

Our wood pile is in a lull. At the beginning of winter we revelled in how much wood we had, a wall of wood, split and stacked, long, high and wide, of spruce and apple and birch. We were rich in wood. But by the other day it was almost gone. I don't know how this happened so quickly. It reminded me of when you think you have plenty of money and then all of a sudden you see you don't. How did that happen, exactly, you wonder.

It's not that we don't have wood. We have a huge pile Greg has made since December, a wall of wood, split and stacked, long, high and wide. But it is the wood for next winter's heat, not for now. It must dry and age until then, when it will be ready. It will be of great use next winter. But it is of no use at all right now.

We can scrounge our way through this lull. There are plenty of standing dead trees around. Come to think of it, we are rich in standing dead trees. Greg can cut one down and chop it up and we can burn it right away, since it's pre-aged. And down by the sheep corral there's a huge pile of well-seasoned slab wood -- the remnants of Skipper's lumber milling over a year ago.

It's another lesson in living hand-to-mouth, an aspect of late winter when the wealth of harvest is running out faster and faster. Still, the temperatures are rising. Soon we'll be in and out of the house all day, too busy with spring projects to pay attention to the fire in the woodstove, which is how winter finally ends.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Not fifteen yards from our house, on the northern side, lies a small wild place, hidden beneath a grove of spruce: a sheep graveyard of their own devising.  

One ewe's bones are an undisturbed pattern of ivory laid out on a bed of spruce needles and moss.  It is as if she had simply laid down in this quiet place, and then, oh-so-slowly, over the years, been distilled to her essence. We have watched the flock seek refuge from heavy rain beneath these very trees. I love how these bones lie so near to our own waking and sleeping. 

You sometimes see, in medieval painting, a memento mori -- a reminder of our mortality. It may be a skull or a skeleton and sometimes it even has a sign attached, like a cartoon caption, with pointing arrows: memento mori. Not too subtle. It is tucked along the edges of the painting, away from the main action. It's something you have to look for. It's not meant to be threatening or frightening. It's more a way to shift the viewer's perspective, away from the apparent reality -- the flirtations of the richly dressed courtiers and ladies who command the painting's foreground, for instance -- to something else quieter, deeper, both more consoling and more real. 

The sheep graveyard is a memento mori for me -- a small sign, tucked away in the edges, that life in all its heartbreaking beauty does at last lie down, and death receives it. Ash Wednesday is tucked away too,  hidden at the edge of things, quiet, deep, consoling, real.  

Monday, February 23, 2009

Give us this day our daily sun or wind

This afternoon a wild westerly wind is blowing and the sun bounces off a harbor churning with white-capped waves.  It’s a wide awake day, cold and lively, after a night of high wind and ice and rain.  The wind holds the house in an enthusiastic embrace, pleading with it to get up and dance an unruly lumbering winter stomp to the tune of its loud brass band, a Mardi Gras of percussive bass with overtones of wail and screech, in defiant, wake-the-neighborhood surround-sound.  Let’s dance! The wind is yelling over the noise of itself.

Today we have a lot of sun and a lot of wind. It’s the perfect combination that gives our fancy batteries a big charge and gives us more electricity than we can use, unless we plan to spend the afternoon in a hot shower, hopping out now and then to use the vacuum cleaner and the power saw.

Our house had done without electricity for a hundred and fifty years before we installed the solar tracker and the wind turbine.  It had seemed lovely to do without, but impractical. Now, hidden inside its walls, are the wires that allow us to light the rooms, use the internet, listen to music, and keep our food cold, not to mention fire up all those power tools.  

But we can’t store this power. Our batteries, once filled, decline slowly but inevitably.  They need constant recharging, from tonight’s wind and tomorrow’s sun, or any combination thereof.  Even though we have more than we need, we can’t save it up for a rainy windless day, and since we’re not on a power grid we can’t sell it to anybody.  Today our energy is abundant, and tomorrow it may be nothing but a trickle.

The ancient Israelites got into trouble out there in the wilderness when they tried to store the manna that came down from the sky as unmanageably as does our electricity. They thought they were wise to collect more than they needed, engaging in the sort of industrious and resourceful behavior the world admires.  But the next morning the manna was moldy and rancid and they had to throw it all out.  They learned, eventually, gratitude for a daily sustenance, a gift of life they could not control.    

Today electrical current spills through our house, a blessing that pours out of the sky like a cup running over.  And we must simply live unto the day, learning the wilderness lesson whether we like it or not.  

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lull between two storms

The last storm began on Thursday. It was strong enough that even Greg did not venture outside much for three days. And this evening a new storm will arrive. It is even now making its way up the East Coast from below New York and over the Gulf of Maine. Then it is due to cross the province and slam into Cape Breton and New Brunswick again. This is the pattern of our winter storms. 

There will be high winds -- maybe very high this time, as much as one hundred kilometres per hour tomorrow, which takes it well into gale force and almost to hurricane force -- snow and sleet and, later, rain.  This will be the tenth or eleventh severe winter storm of the season. But here on the southwest coast the storms pass over, on their way somewhere else. No matter how harsh they are to us, we usually do not get the worst of it. 

This morning I awoke to the ancient sound of the woodcutter splitting wood.  It's a rhythmic thump, thump, thump as the maul swings downward with all the upper body force at the woodcutter's command, slicing through the log, hitting the wide stump on which the log is vertically balanced. It is an activity I don't like to watch. A band saw once snapped in Pugwash and beheaded one of Greg's ancestors. It makes me leery of sharp objects.    

Today is the lull between two storms.  We have emptied the ashes and the compost and brought in enough wood for two or three days. Greg has moved Chopper down to Skipper's wharf in the cove, where she will lie safe from the winds.  He has brought his tools inside and closed the shed doors and latched them. He has moved a full propane tank next to the tank that supplies the breezeway heater, so if it runs out he won't need to go all the way to the shed. He has secured the garbage cans so they won't fly about. By now we have experienced stronger winds than what is expected tonight. So we have some sense of what's coming. 

Today is well above freezing, and the air is calm and the harbour tranquil.  This morning a fine powdered snow covered a smooth crust of ice. We went looking for prints and found some lovely ones. The more we read and compare the prints we have seen with the prints in books, the more I believe we are seeing hare tracks, not foxes. You may wonder how anyone could confuse hares with foxes. It is not that hard to do if you are a beginner. A beginner doesn't know a good print from a poor one. Then, slowly, the more you look at them, the more clearly you see. 

Things become less sharply edged, less fearful, less dramatic, the more you know about them. A bit of familiarity reveals fine variations, too, and makes the whole thing more interesting. The coming storm will not be so bad. "She'll be breezing up," Skipper tells us, which sounds about right. Greg is careful when he splits wood. Foxes become hares.  We savour this lull. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

McNutt's geography: Church Map of 1882

The 1882 Church Directory Map shows the shape of the island's community then. Three Perry households are clustered on the northern part of the western shore.  Along the same side of the island, closer to the lighthouse, are shown six more households, of Rapps and Perrys and Doanes.  

The outlines of all of these households can still be seen.  If you poke around you will find their stone foundations, wells, apple trees and stone walls -- the remnants of island life from another time.  

The place identified as belonging to W. Perry, in the cluster at the top of the map, is where we live. It's the only one of these nine houses that remains. 
Church Directory Map courtesy of NSARM

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hare hearsay

Most times when I say rabbit somebody tells me these are hares. But then people call them both names. The first one Greg and I saw was last spring, along the lower road from Mark and Patsy's camp to ours, sitting very still. The second one I saw while I was painting the picket fence early last summer. It was hopping peacefully from the back orchard stone wall to behind the tool shed, followed by a quiet and slinky mink. Greg saw one in early summer, along the southern stone wall, while he was cutting brush. They could be hares, or they could be rabbits. I guess if we saw a winter hare with its white colour we would know for sure, since the cottontails don't change their colour.  But we haven't.  

What I am about to tell you is almost all hearsay. The story is that there used to be hares in abundance here, back in the old days. The old days go back at least as far as the 1960s and 1970s, when Harry Van Buskirk and Barry Crowell were the lighthouse keepers and their children regularly set snares over on the southeastern part of the island.  Hare stew was an island staple back then.

Then, sometime, somebody had a mink farm somewhere on the mainland around Carleton Village or Gunning Cove, and somehow the mink got over to the island. Maybe they swam. or maybe they stowed away on a lobster boat, or maybe somebody brought them over here on purpose, since they prey on rabbits and snakes. Nobody knows, or if somebody knows nobody tells. If the mink were brought over to keep down the hare population they may have been mighty successful in their work.  And if there are foxes here then that would be another serious predator. 

But then we don't really know how many hares or rabbits are still on the island. Lately I have noticed tracks in the snow that I think could be one or the other. Especially in the woods between our stone wall and the old field where the hotel used to be.  Like so much else, we may think they are not here, when we just haven't yet acquired the awareness or the skill to look for their presence, or to understand the signs we see.   

The island is a place of mysterious signs both literal and metaphorical. This one appeared on the main road last fall. Nobody knows how it got there, or if somebody knows nobody tells. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A sheep's tale

Six sheep are in the back orchard today.  We have to give up our theory that the sheep come around in the winter only when the tide is too high for them to eat the seaweed that has washed up along the shore.  Because the tide is not at a particularly high point. So there's more likely a simpler explanation for their visits. Maybe they are coming by more frequently now just because the snow has melted off.   

One young sheep here today has a tale attached to her. She was born  last May, but she missed getting her tail docked along with all the other lambs in July. Her long tail marks her as a bad flocker, or the lamb of a bad flocker.  So she would have been culled last October, lest she pass on that individualistic trait. But through a small sequence of events she escaped her fate. 

There's a hub-bub on culling day, because the shepherds are running all over the island trying to gather all the sheep, and the sheep are hiding in the woods or running away. One of the shepherds caught this particular long-tailed lamb and tied her to a tree along the side of the road.  He intended to go back later and pick her up after he had herded another flock down to the corral.  

In the meantime a couple of visitors came on the island that day. They knew nothing about the sheep gathering that was going on. They only saw a lamb tied to a tree. Not really thinking, but with the best of intentions, they untied the lamb and she scampered off into the woods.  The shepherds told us about it once they discovered what had happened, and asked us to keep a look out for her.  We did watch for her, and she turned up around the house later in the day.  But we decided not to go back down to the corral again, so we didn't have a chance to let the shepherds know she was here.  To tell the truth, our failure to act wasn't entirely innocent on our part. 

Greg even named her: Cassandra. She may not have a strong flocking instinct, but every time I see her she is with the flock. We know of one lamb whose flocking instinct was so bad he was constantly wandering off or being left behind and frantically bleating to his mother. He was a basket case from May to October, day and night. We were planning to make a special effort to point him out to the shepherds on culling day.  

But Cassandra is not like that. Maybe it was just bad luck that she missed the July gathering and ended up marked by her long tail. If so, then it was just good luck (for her, anyway) that those two strangers came along and untied her. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We seek eagles but instead find things left behind

Yesterday the sun was shining and the wind was quiet and we decided to search for the eagles' nest. I had seen a photograph on the internet of an eagles' nest on the ground and I was sure you couldn't miss it. We had an idea of where to look, in the south western part of the island, between the sheep corral and the lighthouse. So we headed down that way.

Along the way we examined numerous animal prints crossing the icy road and wondered what they might be. They were partly melted and we are not very knowledgable yet so mostly we point and ask each other questions that neither of us can answer. We observed the rivulets streaming down the hillside, along the road, and beneath the road down to the cove. Though they are still edged with ice and snow, they are gurgling, and bright green algae strands float in their shallow currents. Just beyond the corral we surprised the flock of sheep that lives in that area. They ran away with great urgency, leaping over fallen trees and looking back at us as if we were truly a danger to them, although we only stood still and waved a friendly greeting. Silly sheep.  

We did not find the eagles' nest, but we did discover stuff abandoned or left behind or washed up on the island.  We found an old golf cart missing its wheels, sheeps' rovings, ruined cellar foundations, tumbled down stone walls and piles of stones the old fellers made when they cleared fields.  Washed up along the cobble shore we found battered lobster traps, useful nets and rope, and a bright red and blue plastic toy boat in excellent condition.   Sometimes you undertake adventure with great noble purpose but instead find other wonders along the way. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Birchtown, winter 1784

If you were a former slave living in Birchtown on Shelburne Harbour, you likely would have spent the first few Nova Scotia winters in a pit house like this replica. Birchtown -- the first town of free blacks in North America -- was a stony forest, its soil impossible to clear by hand and unfit for cultivation, and a long walk to the new Town of Shelburne where work might be found. The former slaves had moved heaven and earth to obtain their freedom, first by escaping from slavery throughout the American colonies and then through service to the British during the American Revolution. Now they lived in holes they dug in the ground, with planks laid over the top, plugged with moss and lichen and spruce boughs.

An excellent historical account of Birchtown can be found in Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (HarperCollins, 2006). There's also a wonderful novel by Lawrence Hill called The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins, 2007). At the Birchtown Museum you can see a compelling exhibit, as well as this replica, and you can visit the old burying ground, a peaceful place from which to gaze out at the harbour and the sea beyond, and contemplate the long journey to freedom.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Backyard archaeology

Over the past two summers we have dug around the west and south side of the house, next to the kitchen, where we planned to put a small flower and herb garden.  It's mostly in that area that we have dug up our artifacts.  We don't know anything about ceramics, though, so these are just another reminder to us of the life that has gone on here before us. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Snow blowing sideways

Our local weather station at Baccaro Point is calling for flurries today, with a high of -1 centigrade. The flurries are flying across the island on a westerly wind at fifty five kilometres per hour. For comparison, we don't travel across the harbour if winds are above twenty five kilometres, and winds above sixty three kilometres are classified as gale force.  The wind is plenty strong today, and since it's coming from the west our west-facing house takes the brunt of it. It's on a day like this that we realize how many cracks and crevices our wrinkled old wooden house has.  I wonder if it would seem so cold inside if we could not hear the actual wind howling into the house. But we do hear it. It's just what days like this mean for us: we live close to the weather, like everybody who has lived on this island before us. 

On the up side, the sun is also shining, if weakly. This past week Greg began his north side clearing project, taking down the spruce trees that stood too close to the house and blocked our view of the dead forest.  On sunny days like today the standing dead trees -- snags, they are called -- are luminous when the sun strikes them, like ivory, or old bones.  Greg's clearing has also revealed the tumbled-down stone wall that bounds the north side of the property. We plan to restore that wall. But not today. 

Today the snow is light and airy, flying about. From inside, it feels as if our little blue house is in a snow dome that's being shaken energetically.     


Friday, February 13, 2009

Bald eagle sighting

We have been watching for the bald eagles. Last year we began to see the first pair of them in mid February, though for a few days we couldn't quite believe our eyes.  "Are there eagles on the island?" we demanded of anybody we could find to ask. "Maybe," they would say. "Could be." These were not satisfactory answers. I'd stare out the breezeway window for minutes on end, looking. And once, as I pored over the eagle picture in my Birds of North America, I thought I saw the real thing winging past, as if to teach me a lesson about where to look. So this year we have been ready, and waiting.

I thought I saw one earlier this week. It glided over my head while I was hanging out the clothes, but I couldn't make a definite claim to it.  Yesterday, though, Greg saw it flying along the shore, heading south toward the cove, in the direction of its nest. Though it seems that it's hard to miss an eagles' nest, it being nine feet wide and all, we haven't yet found it.  Maybe this year we will make a wider, more thorough search. 

I do not think it coincidental that for two years in a row we have sighted the eagles in mid February.  They have their patterns, and slowly we will learn them. 

As spectacular a creature as it is, the eagle does not call attention to its arrival. It just arrives, and it's up to us to notice it.    

Image from Birds of Nova Scotia, courtesy of The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

McNutt's geography: Montresor map of 1768

Here is a detail from the Montresor map of 1768. John Montresor was a British engineer who mapped Britain's North American colonies, including Nova Scotia.  This map was made in the time after the Acadians had been forced out of Nova Scotia, and while efforts were underway to settle the area with New Englanders, Ulstermen and others.

The Acadians were forced to abandon Nova Scotia in 1759. The greatest concentration of Acadians had been along the Minas Basin  and Port Royal in Bay of Fundy. But there were also Acadians on the southwest shore, at Pubnico, at Cape Sable, and here, at Riviere au Rocheloy and Port Razoir.  

The French census of 1671 recorded three Acadians at Rivière au Rocheloy, as the western channel of Shelburne Harbour was then known. There were twelve Acadians at Port Razoir in the census of 1693 and fifteen in 1708.  In 1699, Villebon reported that:

"From Cap Nègro two leagues east ¼ north is the Rivière des Rochelois; the entrance is good only for small craft; there is an abundance of red oak. Half-a-league beyond the Rivière des Rochelois east south-east is Port Razoir, one of the finest harbors on the coast.  Its entrance is suitable for all vessels, and there is abundant fishing. The soil is suitable for cultivation, and there are many red oaks.  Another of Sr. d'Entremont's sons lives here with his wife and four children, ten or twelve horned cattle, and some sheep.  There is another settler with a wife and two children.  He is not prosperous but is a capable fisherman."

It is possible that these Acadians lived on the island.  A similar situation was found at Chebucto. Today we know Chebucto as Halifax. But in the 1680s "Chebucto" effectively meant McNabs Island in the outer harbour. It was also sometimes called "L'isle de Chebucto," and was the site of a well-documented French fishing outpost. The point of settling on an island in the outer harbour was for the quickest and easiest access to the fishing grounds offshore. McNutt's provided exactly this same accessibility.

The one critical requirement for a simple Acadian fishing community was a high cobble beach for drying fish. The cobbles didn't stick to the fish, like sand would, and provided a dry surface. McNutt's has at least two cobble beaches -- The Point and The Horseshoe -- which would have met this requirement.

Maybe some of the ruined stone cellars we find today were built by early nineteenth century settlers like Jonathan Perry on top of seventeenth century Acadian house sites.  A real archaeological investigation would help us know. But that's not likely to happen here anytime soon.  

The Montresor map shows that by 1768, less than a decade after the expulsion of the Acadians, the local French place names had already been lost. Roswald Island and Port Roswald are names in transition, soon to become thoroughly English: Roseneath and Roseway.  And if the Acadians once lived here, what remains of them is no more substantial than the fog that embraces the island today.

Thanks to Terry Deveau for the information in today's post. The Montresor map is in the public domain. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sheep island

When we first came to visit this place, we missed the truly significant aspects. Instead we focused on the house itself. Could it be restored and could we afford to restore it? We thought about those kinds of questions -- the "practical" questions people learn to ask. But we did not think at all about all those aspects we barely noticed, which would gradually emerge as the important things.

We saw the ancient apple trees and their miserable fruit but we did not imagine what they would give us. Skipper brought us to the island in his lobster boat, and we enjoyed talking to him, but we did not realize how much we would come to rely on him, and on the kindness of so many others we had not yet encountered. We had no idea what effect weather would have on us, nor living so close to an untamed world.

And then there were the sheep. There have been sheep on the island for as long as anyone can remember. When the settlers made this their home, each family had its own flock of sheep. The sheep roamed the island in larger flocks, and once a year they were gathered and shorn, and once a year they were gathered and culled. Each household had a distinctive earmark for its own sheep, so they were easily identified at shearing and culling.

As late as the 1980s the island's sheep were still owned by several people. Elizabeth Hyde owned some, and Harry Van Buskirk, the keeper of the lighthouse, and I think Anne Priest kept a few sheep here as well as on Blue Island, and Tom Perry, who owned sheep on other islands to the south of McNutt's. Later Elizabeth Hyde bought the Perry and Van Buskirk flocks. After Elizabeth's death, they were sold to Arnold d'Eon, who just this winter finally sold them to LeRoy d'Entremont. LeRoy continues the old pattern: he will gather and shear the flocks in summer, and gather and cull them in October, and he will bring the rams in late December, to insure that the lambs will be born in the mild weather of late May. Other than those interventions, the flocks are on their own.

McNutt's is one of a chain of islands along Nova Scotia's southwest shore where sheep have been kept from time out of mind. In winter these sheep survive on the seaweed that washes up along the islands' rocky shores. They seem to survive quite well, and people say their foraged diet contributes to the excellent taste of the lamb.

Since we live here all year, we have the unique privilege of watching how island sheep manage in the winter. We can see them off in the distance, on the rocky point that encloses the cove, grazing away peacefully on most winter days. They visit us when the moon is full and the tide is high and the waves cover their supply of seaweed. Then they amble up the road or through the forest and arrive at the back orchard, as they did yesterday. They graze what vegetation they can find among the ice and slush, moving down to the lower orchard and then through the forest, following a familiar route. There are other flocks on the island, one at the Horseshoe and one -- the largest -- at the lighthouse. But this flock -- of about twenty or so -- is the one that grazes along the island's western side, where we live.

We do not really think they have come to visit us when they come here. We know they are always in search of food. In all seasons this old farm provides it: in spring the tender tips of pruned apple branches and the green furled shoots of fern; in summer an abundance of clover and daisies and forget-me-nots and grasses; in fall the windfall feast of apples.

When we spy the sheep we always call to each other and come to look. Their presence around the house or in the apple grove feels like a version of grace: unmerited, unexpected, uncontrolled. They happen by, nibbling the brown dead grass, keeping to their own inner compass. They leave according to their own schedule, which they do not share with us. Our interest and attention and affection for them is unreciprocated: we are not a part of their world, though they are very much a part of ours. Their complete indifference to us is an aspect of their profound otherness, which is in itself a gift. The sheep recalibrate our place in the world. We are here to watch and wonder at woolly mystery, that visits as it pleases, the way angels used to visit, but unlike angels bearing no message as far as we can tell.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A little bit more about our house

I cleaned up the breezeway so today was a good time to take a picture of it. This picture shows the entire building -- somebody's house or shed -- that was brought here from somewhere else on the island sometime in the early twentieth century and attached to the original house. For the Gouldens, who lived here from 1907 to 1951, and the DeMings, who lived here from 1951 to 1960, this part of the house was divided into two rooms: the wood shed and the cool room for keeping milk, cream and butter. There was a pass-through structure that connected the original house and the wood shed/dairy room.

The breezeway is new. We tore down the old connecting room, which wasn't hard. We pushed one wall and it fell over. We dug beneath the space and laid the plumbing there, and this section has a new concrete foundation. Greg tiled the floor. Those are new windows and a new door. There's a lot that goes on in this breezeway. It is our basic mud entrance, where we put on and take off our boots and jackets and gloves and hats. The upright freezer is in this room, and the washing machine. It is where we keep our jars of applesauce and chutneys and jellies and jams, what's left of them. For a while this fall it was Greg's hard cider making place. Sometimes we keep wood in here just to make sure we'll have some back-up dry wood if the weather looks iffy. And we have a retractable clothesline so we can dry clothes in here. It's also where we have dances.

Looking through the breezeway you can see a hallway with a door opening into the bathroom. Then you can see into the back room which is our guest room. Originally that back room was the wood shed, and the far window was a door. We keep the door to the back room closed in winter so the rest of the house can stay warmer. It's lovely in summer, though: the window opens onto the back orchard.

The bathroom was the very first indoor bathroom on McNutt's Island. Greg cut a hole in an old cabinet to make the sink, and he tiled the floor with tiles left over from an earlier renovation back in the US. There's also a bathtub and shower, which you can't see in this picture.

Elizabeth Hyde had the most ingenious shower rigged up in this part of the house. She drew water from the well, heated it on her wood stove, then poured the warm water into a bucket hung from a hook, and pulled a cord that opened the perforated bottom of the bucket. When you release the cord the water stops. Elizabeth brought this bucket back from her year in Africa, in 1960. The water drained through a wooden grid into a substratum of stones and then into the earth. An indoor shower in a house without running water or electricity. Pretty cool.

We still have the bucket and used it outside the first summer, before we got running water. It was heavenly to take a shower under the oak tree with hot water running all over you after you'd spent the day insulating the attic crawl space or mucking out the cellar. Of course it's pretty nice to take a hot shower indoors in February, too.

Skipper and Radar framed, insulated and gyp-rocked this part of the house, and Greg built the shelves and did all the trim work, the finishing and painting. For the framing, they cut the trees right here on the island and and milled all the lumber themselves. Skipper has a wood mill, which Greg deeply covets. Their 2"x4"s were truly 2"x4"s. They also roofed and shingled the breezeway exterior, and installed the breezeway windows and door. We loved having them both around for that first summer we were here. We learned so much from them and never laughed more.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Signs of spring in winter's depths

A spell of bitter cold began the day after Groundhog Day and continued until last night. Every branch, every twig, every stone, every upturned pail and rotting log was ice-coated, and dazzling. Then overnight the air warmed. On this Sunday morning snow and ice are melting into slush.

Even in the cold spell, though, there were signs of spring. An aspen along the lower road had begun to bud. Yesterday a woolly bear caterpillar made its way slowly across a vast ice field. Even in winter's depths the days continue to grow longer, almost imperceptibly, and almost imperceptibly, the world responds.

For two straight nights the moon waxed gibbous in a clear sky. Bright moonlight made the stars fade, except for Venus glowing steadily in the western sky. She is undeterred by the moon's radiance. The moon shone on gnarled branches of old apple trees and cast gnarled black shadows against sparkling white ice. The island was coated with a smooth crust of ice that glittered in the cold moonlight. I stood on the lower road awed by silence. And from somewhere in the skeleton forest, the great horned owl hoo-hoo-hoo-hooed.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cape Roseway Lighthouse

The best known feature of McNutt's Island is the Cape Roseway Light. This lighthouse was built in 1788. It was the third lighthouse built in all of Canada, after Louisbourg in 1733 and Sambro in 1758. The original light was built of locally cut stone and at some early point the exterior was clad with wooden clapboard. The first light keeper was Alexander Cocken, whose 1790 petition to the Legislative Assembly for payment of his salary can be read here.

The light station was the mainstay of a thriving island community throughout the nineteenth century and up until the 1940s, when Fort McNutt was built and nearly every island family moved to the mainland with the government's encouragement.

In 1959 the lighthouse suffered severe damage in a lightning strike and was replaced with a new structure. In 1984 the lighthouse was automated, ending nearly two hundred years of light keepers. Elizabeth Hyde noted in her journal that on May 6, 1985 the coast guard helicopter crossed over and back, dangling huge nets full of goods directly overhead, about two dozen times. And so the last lightkeeper, Robert Croft, left the island.

But history does not segment so neatly. The lightkeeper for the twenty years preceding Croft was Harry Van Buskirk and the assistant was Barry Crowell. The connection of the Van Buskirks and the Crowells to McNutt's Island continues to this day, and they are a collective well of island lore.

In 1942 A. J. Gough was stationed at Fort McNutt. He took photographs of the lighthouse and of Cape Roseway on which it was built. These photographs are of Cape Roseway itself and of the original lighthouse, built in 1788 and destroyed in 1959.

These images belong to the family of A.J. Gough and are used here by permission.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Weather report

The morning snow has turned into ice, and teeters between icy rain and rainy ice while the temperature keeps falling.  The spruce are weighted down with wet snow.  They sway in ominous slow motion, from top to bottom, to the slow-dance music of a cold northeasterly wind. They look as if they could topple over from the effort of remaining vertical, continuing to dance beneath their steadily increasing burden. 

The birches wave only their branches and not their trunks. The waving branches are glazed with ice.  They are gently waving now, but they could just as easily break off if their ice covering gets thicker and the wind picks up. Both the spruce and the birch are strangely beautiful, transformed by winter's gifts.  The trees have gravitas today, and quietly dance as the sky grows dark.  

To the lighthouse

The day was bright and still, though cold. I was surprised to see that the road to the light house was covered with snow and ice.  The snow had melted away around our house and down to the western shore.  But the road goes through the forest, and so things are different there. 

It was hard to walk in the snow since there was a crust of ice over the top. I had to watch where I was walking and concentrate.  The island was very still. Sometimes I could hear the sound of the lobster boats out in the channel or off the cape.  I was the loudest thing out by far, with my din of crunching snow. Had there been any wildlife near the road it would have been well warned.  Every once in a while I stopped to listen to the snow-covered silence that descended when I was not walking. Then I could hear a crow or a gull, or a small bird deeper in the forest. Deer tracks crossed the road, following their own way from one part of the forest to another.  The road means nothing to them.

I looked at the signs posted along the road: No Littering, Lighthouse 4 Km, sign without words. There are secret signs, too, that indicate entrances to interior paths: an orange surveyor’s ribbon tied to bush, an old red taillight.  Several streams have their source to the south of the island’s watershed on the east side of the road. They run beneath the road down toward the western side of the island.  From the road I gazed at mossy stream banks and a moss covered forest floor, bright light filtering through the spruces.    

At the side of the road in the middle of the island stands a curious tree. It is surrounded by water from multiple springs, so that it stands on a small island within an island. The tree’s root system must be covered by water most of the time.  This tree is a conifer, but its shape is reminiscent of a hardwood tree and it is bare of either needle or leaf.  From below you can look through the branches into the sky’s vast blue background. Gray-white cones adorn the branches like tiny dried roses or little jewels.  There’s a mysterious quality to this tree, growing in moss and isolated by gently running waters.   

Along the road are forests of miniature spruce seedlings.  The ice has melted around the little trees, leaving each one on its own warm island surrounded by a frozen sea.  Each little spruce tree is a tiny radiant life force.    

Getting to the light house was glorious: all sun and no snow there, the sea so pale and calm, the sky mirroring it, high and wide, with wispy long streaks of cloud. I sat on a boulder and watched serene-looking lobster boats, all different colours, some mere dots on the horizon, others nearby.  

After the warm sun at the lighthouse, I didn’t want to walk back through the cold icy forest along a road shadowed now with the gloomy light of a winter afternoon.  The return journey seemed much longer than the going out, even though I only retraced my steps. My occasional slips on the ice were a reminder to pay attention and not gawk so much or slide into useless meandering of thoughts as I often do.   

I read somewhere that the Nova Scotia forests are an essential part of the earth’s system of oxygenation, like the rain forests of the Amazon.  Walking through the island’s forested interior, I imagined the spirit of the world meditating on this mossy mat, breathing gently in and out. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wild raspberry syrup

Wild raspberries ripen all over the island in August.  You can find them anywhere, glowing like amethysts along the side of the road or off in an old field.  There are some patches that are particularly dense and bear especially sweet fruit.  But I can't tell you where those patches are, because where we pick our raspberries is a secret. 

The families who have camps on the island each have their own special place to pick and they’re not telling anybody else where it is. It works out well because everybody is convinced that they have found the best place. So there is no coveting of thy neighbours' raspberries.  It's almost idyllic in that way, as long as you don't trespass on anybody else's patch, which you wouldn't know you had done, since these claims are secret.  

Other claims are staked openly. The mosquitoes are fierce protectors of their turf, and so are various little flies and worms and bees. It's easy to reach beneath a cluster of leaves for a perfect berry only to see, just in time, that a bumblebee has gotten there first.  But in the end there are enough for us all. 

We ate plenty of raspberries as we pulled them off the brambles, and we used lots of them right away. But mostly we froze them.  I spread them out on a cookie sheet  as soon as we got home, and stuck them in the freezer. When they were frozen I measured a cup of raspberries into a snack-size baggie. After a few weeks of this we had a small baggie mountain of frozen raspberries to gloat over, about two and half gallons.  Not that we gloated.

This winter Greg has made wild raspberry syrup for the first time. Anything that requires the use of cheesecloth is daunting to me, but he doesn't seem to mind. This syrup is splendid on swedish pancakes or french toast.  And it's the colour of summer.