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, September 29, 2009

islands on the air

Today we are having a visit from Martin Atherton, a ham radio operator and instructor from England. He came over to the island this morning in Brown Eyed Girl, carrying the equipment to set up a radio signal on McNutt's. Straightaway he extended a telescopic fibreglass pole thirty feet high in the middle of the back orchard, with long guy wires radiating out from its centre.
Then he ran an electrical cord through a back window, attached it to his transceiver and his computer, and began signalling. On islands where there's no electricity he brings along a small generator.

Here are a few things I've learned since this morning. There are ham radio operators around the world who focus on islands. They're called island chasers. The island chasers participate in contests in which they try to be in contact with as many islands as possible. So when somebody like Martin begins to signal from an island that does not have a permanent ham radio operator, the island chasers rush to signal and receive a return signal. Later, at home, Martin will send a postcard to every operator who contacted him on McNutt's, to verify the contact. The postcards themselves become a nice collection.

On this trip, Martin set up a signal at Miquelon, one of a group of small French islands south of Newfoundland, before he came to McNutt's. He has radioed from many islands over the years, including islands off Newfoundland and Labrador, and in the Arctic. He came to McNutt's in the mid 1980s to signal from here, and stayed in this very house with Elizabeth Hyde. He'll spend the night with us, sitting at his transceiver late into the night. He'll continue to signal in the morning, then break down his equipment and take off for Halifax and his flight home.
It's really a way to promote international friendship, he told us over lunch. It does sound like a fascinating interest that connects people all around the world.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Unexpected harvest

We arrived home from a few days' absence to discover that the garden fence had been broken through and the deer and the sheep had helped themselves to just about everything. It was no use trying to figure out who the first culprit was. The garden had quickly became a well-known party destination. The sheep and the deer did not need Twitter to learn about the latest happening place. Some irresistible force drew them -- the fragrance of cabbage leaves released into the air? the faintest wafting of tomatoes? -- and they came streaming and leaping, essence of wildness, from the rocky lighthouse shore and the deep forest recesses.

Deer poured gracefully through the ragged new doorways that blossomed everywhere along the net. The sheep, less graceful but still enthusiastic, somehow maneuvered their bodies inside too. I would have liked to have watched their silvery entrances and their moon-lit party. They were not being vandals, after all. From their point of view it had nothing to do with us. They were being wild things. I imagine them feasting inside the broken walls, a luminous medieval altar piece come to life. If there exists a Church of the Wild Things -- which there probably is, all around us, even though we have not yet noticed it -- this could be its image of the abundant love of God.

But I had a point of view, too. I was sad to lose so much: cabbage and squash, cucumbers and zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, beans, chard, mustard, mesclun. The first day I stayed away from the garden, a bit stunned. The next morning I found a couple of sheep wandering about inside it, casually exiting as they watched me approach. That day I mended the holes, using twine to draw the netting back together. It wouldn't be strong enough anymore, now that the animals had tasted paradise. But maybe it would keep them out until we could put up something better. There were still things to protect inside the garden: parsnips and leeks and potatoes and asparagus. The things they spurned.

Later Skipper brought over a bright orange flounder net. Its nylon roping is heavier than the herring net we used for the first layer. The fence will have layers, now, of teal and orange. If such a thing is possible, it will be even more beautiful than before. And not only will it stop any herring that are trying to get in, but now flounder, too.

On Sunday Mary and Leroy d'Etremont tied their skiff to the dock and walked up the hill with bags and bags of vegetables from their garden in Pubnico: zucchini, at least twenty cabbages, a huge sack of glowing red tomatoes, dozens of peppers, squash. We had asked if we could trade vegetables for the meals Greg will make the shepherds when they are here to gather and cull the sheep later this week. But they just gave it all to us. "I wasn't going to have time to process it all anyway," Mary told us. "I was too busy this fall. The garden got away from me. It's better for me to bring it to you." It's still a barter as far as I'm concerned, but I'm learning that barter is less the exchange of one specific thing for another specific thing and something more profound and simple: a way of doing and being, a way of tasting the ordinary goodness that weaves its way through a broken world.

Today Greg is making sauerkraut and rainbow slaw, and for the freezer tomato soup base, braised cabbage, bags of chopped bell peppers, zucchini loaf. Today the kitchen is a little food factory. The season's harvest is unexpected and bountiful and we are grateful.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lessons from gardeners

I have been enjoying Michael Tortorello's gardening blog in The New York Times this season. So when he asked readers to share their stories I sent him a little bit about our island garden. Yesterday Michael posted Lessons from Gardeners, a generous tour of gardens near and far. Including this one.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A peaceful autumn evening

The last remaining fisherman's house on the island, seen from the back orchard, a little after sunset this evening.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

McNutt's geography: geocaching

Geocaching is a popular world-wide activity that involves the outdoors, a GPS, clues and hidden treasure (sort of). It's a bit like a scavenger hunt, or a game of hide-and-seek. A sense of adventure is really the main thing that's required!

One spring day a year ago we heard that the geocachers were coming to McNutt's Island. A small group had come over earlier to place containers or other indications of a cache around and about. The larger group arrived one sunny day to follow the clues and find as many of the caches as they could. You can read about it at the web site of The Atlantic Geocaching Association.
The caches are still on the island -- somebody told me that there are about forty sites -- and every now and then small groups of geocachers come over to search for them. When they find a cache, they open it up and sign their name in a log. Then they put it back exactly the way they found it, for the next person. I think at some of the sites they are supposed to take a picture of themselves there and send it in. And that's really all there is to it. This seems like an enjoyable way to experience a new place. Though at two thousand acres this is a big island and if you wanted to find all of the caches you would be doing a lot of hiking.

I wonder if I have seen a cache on the island and not realized what I was looking at. It could be...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

McNutt's geography: current nautical chart

Our friend Martin Smith, who lives on the other side of the harbour near Fort Point, gave us this beautiful nautical chart of the south coast from Lockeport to Cape Sable. It is published by The Canadian Hydrographic Service. Here's a detail, of McNutt's Island in Shelburne Harbour.The chart is a little bit out of date. There is no longer a public wharf at Carleton Village, on the west side of the harbour opposite the island. It blew away in some storm and was never rebuilt. There may still be a cable below the western way, dating from the 1940s, but if it's still there it does not bring electricity to the island as it did during the days of Fort McNutt.

As always, click on the image if you want to enlarge it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The foghorn building at Cape Roseway

McNutt's foghorn ... seems the voice of fog itself. Surely if a fog could speak it would speak in these accents.*

The foghorn house at Cape Roseway is the oldest building that remains there. The original lighthouse was built in 1788, but was replaced after it was severely damaged in 1959. This undated photograph by Clara Dennis of the foghorn building and the original lighthouse was probably taken in the early 1930s, when she is known to have visited Cape Roseway.
Today the fog alarm building -- which was built in 1916-1917 to replace an earlier structure -- is an empty ruin looking out to sea.
A undated Canada Department of Transportation photograph shows the fog alarm. It would have required constant tending by the lighthouse keepers when frequent fogs made the coastline and the lighthouses invisible to ships at sea.
This photograph from the Canada Department of Transportation shows the original light and the fog alarm. Three unidentified men and a boy are standing in the foreground. These may be the lightkeepers and assistant lightkeepers, and possibly includes John McKenna, the lighthouse artist.
A foghorn operated at Cape Roseway from 1884 until it was taken out of service in 1989. Until then its sound was a familiar and perhaps comforting part of local life, heard both at sea and on land for a century.

Howard Walden wrote a book about his experiences in the 1960s as a summer resident at the village of Jordan Bay, three miles away from McNutt's Island.* He described a visit with the lightkeeper at Cape Roseway. He didn't identify the lightkeeper, but it was most likely Harry Van Buskirk. The keeper explained to Howard Walden how the foghorn worked.
"The decision to start the horn customarily needed two of three votes. When a fog is gathering the vote is cast: if two of the three keepers say they can no longer see the lighthouse at Western Head, five miles to the east, or that at Cape Negro equidistant to the west, the button is pushed to start the horn. Once started, the horn continues at its 50-second intervals until, perhaps hours or days later, another button is pushed to stop it.

'To make it a bit more inexact,' [the lightkeeper] said, 'if an off-duty keeper is asleep at voting time we don't wake him up. We settle it between the two of us.'"

The voice of the fog is silent now -- a whole dimension of human ingenuity and effort superceded by more precise and reliable technology.

Canada Department of Transportation photos and photo by Clara Dennis are courtesy of NSARM. The Virtual Archives at NSARM has a wonderful collection of photographs and documents on Nova Scotia's lighthouses.

*Howard T. Walden, 2nd, Anchorage Northeast (New York, William Morrow & Co., 1971), pages 81 and 159. Used by permission.

The Cape Roseway entry at The Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society gives additional detail and history about the light and the foghorn.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wait'll next year

As a lazy gardener I am especially fond of plants that promise to produce food for our table year after year with as little help as possible from me. I would like to make an entire garden of these plants. Good things would come of this. We would mostly dine on rhubarb pie, blueberry ice cream and homemade wine, and I would mostly lie in a hammock and read novels, preferably ones that end with a wedding.

Since beginning the garden in June 2008, I have made a good start along the path to this magical place where luscious food falls into my lap without my lifting a finger:
The rhubarb you may have met before, back when it was fresh and green. I moved all of it to this spot about a year ago, some of it from about four feet away, and some from Queenie's patch across the harbour in Churchover. Now it's looking its age and doing whatever it's supposed to do until next spring. Which I guess is just sit there quietly. It's too soon to be dividing any clumps so this rhubarb isn't on any to-do list that I know of.
I didn't know you are supposed to plant asparagus crowns, which I imagined were tiny green tiaras. So last summer I planted seeds instead. Then I didn't know to cover the bed with something to prevent the ground from heaving over the winter, so some of the plants died. Never mind. The bed is full of asparagus anyway, and in another couple of years we will have asparagus forever.
I planted two blueberry bushes last summer. I gave them lots of space because I heard they would be big. Not yet they aren't. One bush was full of blueberries -- maybe a cup -- until the day the birds swept through. I didn't know about putting a net over it.
Even the birds haven't bothered with the other bush. But it's all okay. When the time is ripe there will be blueberries.
Elizabeth Hyde's daughter told us that her mother planted the grape vine. I had been wondering how old it was. So now we know it's maybe around thirty or forty years old. We cut it back drastically last year and I see a few grapes this fall. They'll turn purple, like a Concord. I cut off about five dozen young grape leaves in early summer and froze them. The idea being that we will make stuffed grape leaves sometime over the winter, to go with the rhubarb pie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Garden of inductive reasoning

My wildflower garden experiment so far has led me to conclude that yarrow, mallow and ox-eye daisies are all greatly enjoyed by sheep. Safe within the fence, where the sheep can't reach them, they have all grown into lovely plants. But out around the island, where they grow in the old fields and along the roads and where the sheep can eat their fill, the same flowers make a meager showing.
Now I can add another flower to the list. Last fall I dug up a few spindly, pitiful little asters and planted them in the wildflower garden. When you see them around the island -- as in this photograph from along the bog path -- they look like something hiding out. It didn't seem like they had it in them to do very well in the garden, but I thought I'd give it a try.

Inside the garden, the stems and leaves began to come up in early summer. They were growing into plants so tall and graceful, so beautiful, really, that I wasn't sure it could be the same thing I had planted in those spots last fall. Maybe something else had blown in instead. Day after day I looked at them wonderingly.

I noticed that some of the stems and leaves were chewed off on the side of the plant nearest the fence. Later I caught sheep lolling about just outside the fence with their hands in their pockets, whistling innocently. And then one morning I shooed three lambs away as they shoved their muzzles between the pickets to get a taste.
According to this scientific experiment, sheep love asters. I'm happy for them to have all the asters they can eat, everywhere else on the island.
But not these.

Monday, September 14, 2009

McNutt's geography: Thos. Jefferys map of 1755

This is a detail from A new map of Nova Scotia and Cape Britain ... made by cartographer Thomas Jefferys in 1755 and published in London in 1760.At the time the map was made the Acadians were being forced out of Nova Scotia and dispersed to the four winds. The British were concerned to settle loyal subjects in their underpopulated colony of Nova Scotia. Soon after this map was made, migrants arrived from the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts and settled Cape Sable and Barrington to the south of McNutt's Island and Liverpool to the north. Rosway or Razoir Island -- two of the earlier names for McNutt's Island -- is shown here, at the mouth of a then-unnamed harbour.

The settlements were meager and consisted of Cape Cod fishermen and their families, who were often left to fend for themselves in a harsh and lonely place. There's no evidence that there was a settlement on this island then. But its cove was well known by New England fishermen as a safe harbour from storms, and a good place to anchor and repair their boats.

Note the presence of the Mikmak or Cape Sable Indians indicated on the map. There's no direct evidence yet of their presence here on the island but it could well have been a place of seasonal encampments, perhaps even as late as 1755.

Image is courtesy of NSARM.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The magicians

I climb out of my rowboat onto the dock and stare down into the water. From this perspective I can see that I have been rowing --all unknowing -- through swarming schools of tiny fish. As far as I know they don't have a name. When I asked around, people said they were just the little fish that bigger fish like to eat.

Now they turn and wheel in synchrony, quick and flowing at the same time. Their bodies flash silver as sunlight penetrates the water. But it's only for an instant, like a strobe light. The effect is of hundreds of flashing, gleaming silver shards blinking off and on as light sinks below dark rippling water. Though they appear to be, the fish are not tumbling about randomly. They are schooling in perfect formation. It's the light on their bodies that plays a trick on my eyes.

By the time I have tied the rowboat's painter to the dock and turned back to look again, they are gone without a trace. It's as if they were never there at all.

I begin my walk back to the house from the dock. It is a slow walk. An observer might think I am practicing walking meditation, I go so slowly. Instead I'm watching the warblers as they dart and flash through the bayberry bushes that line the shore and dominate the bog below the house.

I used to fret about these bushes and consult my reference books, back when I thought I could learn the names of everything. They seemed bayberry-ish, but lacked that essential element, berries. Now I see that the tiny waxy berries disappear down tiny warbler gullets and into tiny warbler bellies. They will pick these bayberry bushes nearly clean, carbo-loading for their upcoming marathon.
They are masters of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't-school of performance art. They hide, and flit, and dart, and there are so many different varieties of them. I stare and stare, trying to distinguish the different warblers that the birding lists tell me come through here on their way south for the winter: Palm, Black and White, Common Yellow Throat, Northern Parula, so many others.

But they are too quick for me. Their colours are various, too, and subtle: now and then there's an impressionist's brushstroke of cream, a flash of yellow, a gleam of gold. For a moment I am able to let go of my need to know their names. When I look at them from this perspective they are magical.

Image of the Northern Parula from Birds of Nova Scotia, courtesy Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Purloined lace

I've never seen Queen Anne's Lace here on the island, even though it grows all along the roadsides just across the harbour.So when we visited Le Village historique acadien in Lower West Pubnico late last summer I took a dried flower head out of the garden there and shoved it in my pocket. All afternoon I felt the dry crumbly texture of the seed pod coming apart every time I touched it, hidden in its secret place. By behaving in a nonchalant manner I got away from there without being apprehended.
It was about the same time that I was starting the little wildflower garden next to the house. I came home and planted the stolen seeds there.
There's no evidence for it, but some people think Acadians may have lived on this island in the seventeenth century, or at least may have used its rocky shores for drying fish. More certainly they were across the harbour to the west. So --even though it's a wildflower that will grow just about anywhere, and does -- the Queen Anne's Lace that's growing in the garden reminds me of the ghostly presence of Acadians along south shore Nova Scotia.

What lies beneath

The old houses on McNutt's were built with stone cellars and stone foundations. You can see the remains of these cellars and foundations at several places on the island. The oldest cellar on the island may be the McNutt house cellar, which was built before 1765. The cellar of our house is below the kitchen. Jonathan Perry and his son William built this house in the late 1850s.
The steps into the cellar were made by splitting huge rocks into rectangles using a technique called plug and feather. Which I will describe later, after I have learned more about it. You can find these dressed stones -- no longer used --lying around on the island.
The stones for the cellar walls were carefully selected and carefully placed.
The cellar walls are a little higher than six feet.
In the cool dim underground light, I lay my hands on the wall and feel its past: how father and son dug the cellar, chose all these stones from around the property, hauled them to this place with an ox, and laid them in the sequence that stands today.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Rowing to the horseshoe

The harbour water was a shimmering flatness this morning. I rowed over to the horseshoe to look around.It was near high tide, when the water breaks across the lower places on the horseshoe.
From the rowboat I could look across at Sandy Point Light, which guards the entrance to the inner harbour and the town of Shelburne.
A skiff was tied up at the government wharf, taking off some of the weekend campers. The government wharf is an enormous structure. It dates back to the 1940s when it accomodated Fort McNutt.
Two yachts were moored in the cove near the government wharf.
Most of the weekend campers left with the high tide this morning so they could get the ATVs on and off their boats.
There wasn't anything very dramatic to look at out in the cove, just a calm harbour and a sky of high wispy clouds.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Golden day

It is an almost unbearably beautiful day on the island. The light is golden, and everything -- apples, sheep, stones, deer, water -- is shining with it. The oak tree and the bayberry bog are filled with tiny warblers and you can catch just a glimpse of golden feathers when they spread their wings.

Boats come and go into the cove, filled with visitors and guests for the long weekend. The teenagers have brought their ATVs, and they ride back and forth along the road, traveling between the camps looking for fun, which may be over at the other camp. All afternoon and late into the night they will continue, back and forth.
Still the golden light hovers over the island, blessing everything and all of us alike.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Brown Eyed Girl

Brown Eyed Girl stopped at the government wharf this afternoon to pick up two island visitors. The boat dropped them off this morning and they hiked to the lighthouse, then came by our house for afternoon tea. Brown Eyed Girl makes a second trip from Shelburne in the afternoon, when she takes her passengers all the way around the island, and then picks up anybody she has left off here in the morning. This is the first summer for Ken and Sherri Taylor's Shelburne Harbour Boat Tours. I think they are happy with how well the summer has gone for their new enterprise. We are glad that it offers people a way to visit McNutt's, or to see it up close from every angle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A secret place

Just as we were about to begin gathering the sheep last week, Blake said to me, "Do you want a picture of some snake eggs for your blog?"So he and Anna and I made a quick detour to a place that Blake knows about. He raised up a board and we saw six white snake eggs, oblong in shape and about three centimeters long, in the cool protected dirt beneath. We did not see their mother. I took a picture and then Blake put the board back in place and we left.
These are the eggs of a smooth green snake, one of the two kinds of snakes on the island. The other kind, the maritime garter snake, gives live birth to her babies.

I asked Blake how he knew the eggs would be there. He told us that the mother lays her eggs in the same spot every year. Imagine knowing something as secret as that.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Northern Pitcher Plant

The northern pitcher plant is common in Nova Scotia, where it makes its home in acidic bogs. We had not seen them here, though, until recently, when we came upon an open acidic bog on the southern end of the island.During the 1940s, when Fort McNutt and its guns were in place, much of this area was deforested. There used to be a pond here, according to those who know. Now it is an open bog -- a place where it really isn't possible to walk because you can't tell whether there is any solid ground below your feet.
The leaves of the pitcher plant are carnivorous. The leaves emit an odor of decay that attracts insects. Then an inner lining of stiff downward-pointing hairs sends the insects sliding into small pools of water that collect in the base of the leaves. There dreadful things happen to them, but quickly, before they know it.
Meanwhile the pitcher plant's flower rises serenely above the carnage.
In an acidic bog there is little nitrogen available for the roots of plants. The decomposed insects become usable nitrogen for this graceful flower.
An open bog is a phase in a process. Eventually the bog will dry out as it fills in with layer upon layer of decomposing mosses and grasses and other plant life. The mosses will become peat, and the spruces that now surround the bog will invade it. It will become a forest again, and the pitcher plant will not grow here any longer.