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.

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.

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