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.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A garden between the forest and the sea

Our vegetable garden is entering its second year. In June last year we went after the compacted place where a garden had flourished decades earlier. Beneath a tangled layer of grasses and roots we encountered wire, fencing, old fish nets, remnants of plastic tarps, and stones of every size. We added a new deer fence of spruce posts and fish net. It was a late start, but it was a start. All summer and early fall the wind sang through the fish net as I discovered the tiny miracles and disappointments of a vegetable garden. 

The miracles outweighed the disappointments. I watched a delirious bee, the baskets on his legs already packed with glowing amber pollen, lurch from flower to flower like a drunk on a pub crawl. "Just one more!" I distinctly heard him say in a buzzing kind of way. And once, a few feet from where I sat weeding, a ruby-throated hummingbird ignored me entirely, so intensely focused was he on the pole beans' scarlet flowers. I learned that a handful of seeds would provide us with six months of sugar snap peas, not to mention the beauty of the flowers that came before the pea pods -- flowers of violet and garnet and azure -- hanging on the vines.  

I read that gardening is mostly weeding and heave an inward sigh of relief.  I can do weeding. There are so many helpful hints and instructions and lessons for gardening available on the internet that you could make yourself crazy or paralyzed by trying to take it all in, much less remember it all. Better to just go ahead and make your own mistakes, I think. That way you'll remember them at least.  Anyway, it isn't mostly about mistakes and avoiding them. It's mostly about being out there day after day, watching what's going on and taking care of things and letting yourself be amazed. 

One thing I learned last summer was that I needed to built stronger trellises. Last year the vines sagged on old lanyard strung between two tall stakes. I tried to stake the stakes, but eventually the strong summer winds and the weight of the vines and leaves and peas made for a mess.  This year we will have more trellises, for peas and beans and english cucumber, a particularly nice kind of cucumber that's expensive in the store.  

Our new plan is for taller stakes, more deeply buried, with better side supports, and an old herring net for the climbing vines.  We found the herring net along the shore past the sheep corral a month or so ago, and Greg went down and got it this weekend. I have marked it off and cut it to size. It's a great net, its weave much heavier than the net we used for the perimeter fence, so easier to work with. And as you can see it's beautiful.  I especially admire the bright orange line woven into all that lovely teal.

The stakes are the leftovers from Skipper's lumber milling on the island, so they are from the spruce forest. The net used to hang many fathoms deep below the surface of the sea. Now the worlds of forest and sea will intersect where peas and beans and cucumbers climb from earth to sky. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos arrived on Friday, March 27th. Last year they arrived together, too. They seem to be great friends and have a lot in common.

In 1915 the students at McNutt's Island School reported that the Song Sparrow arrived on April 15th. I expect it has been arriving in the spring for a long time, even when nobody made a note of it.

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

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Another sign of spring

Spring is casting its easefulness upon the island. The sheep are in the lower orchard this afternoon, the very picture of pastoral calm. Several of the flock are lying down. The closer they get to giving birth the more they will spend their time resting like this. It will be another six weeks before we expect to see new lambs, though. 


Friday, March 27, 2009

Shelburne's new day

Greg's most recent article is out in Coastal Life, the new bi-monthly magazine for western Nova Scotia.  You can get Coastal Life locally at Spencer's Garden Centre. The beautiful photographs of Shelburne that accompany the article are by Alan Delaney, Shelburne's new mayor. That's Alan standing by Shelburne Harbour in the one photograph Greg took. 

Greg enjoyed writing the article because it gave him the opportunity to hear from Alan and other town leaders about how Shelburne is moving in new directions.   

The cover story for this issue of Coastal Life is about one of our favourite music groups, Grand Derangement. They are a fantastic Acadian group from the Pubnico area in south west Nova Scotia.    

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Only connect

I love my new connection with Amy-Lynn Bell, who writes about the natural world at Flandrum Hill. I can't remember now how I came upon her blog a few weeks ago, but it is beautiful, insightful and always fresh. Amy-Lynn also lives on Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast, but north of Halifax. So it's interesting to compare our experiences of nature from the two different vantage points.    

Today Greg and I were admiring a woodpecker on a snag. This evening I see that Amy-Lynn has identified it for us.  This kind of thing has been happening all month. I think we have one of those weird connections you run across with people now and then. If you like reading Nova Scotia Island Journal you will also enjoy Flandrum Hill. 

Mary Cassatt, The Letter. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The stones rise up in spring

Each spring, from deep within itself, earth pushes and pulls and groans and sighs.  And each spring, slowly, spring by spring, the stones emerge. 

Intense heat created the bedrock from which these stones come, back when McNutt's Island was part of Pangaea.  Then North America, Europe, and Africa were all one.  After Pangaea broke apart the molten bedrock cooled and hardened. Later, the Laurentian Ice Sheet slipped down from the north. Ice scoured the land, tearing up rock and slab, tossing it about to make this picturesque and deadly coastline. The ice retreated, and left behind a landscape of broken rock.  

Then gradually the earth warmed. Forests returned and their growth and decay laid down soil over the stones. But beneath the soil the stones remained. The early settlers on McNutt's Island -- the Old Fellers -- pulled them from the earth and tossed them in rows to clear their new fields, and also to build these walls, our reminders of their labour. 

But more stones remained beneath the earth. Each year's seasons of freeze and thaw continue to lift the stones slowly upward through the soil toward the surface. If you look closely at a stone embedded in the earth on the path to the fish house, you find a narrow dark band around the base, a newly exposed surface. There's a small gap around the stone where the ground has heaved and pulled away, making room for its passage into the light.  It's a sign of spring that you can barely see, when the stones rise up. 

Thanks to Terry Deveau for his email about the geology of McNutt's Island. You can read more in Robert M. Thorson's Stone By Stone: the magnificent history in New England's stone walls (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2002). 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sunset after a snowy day

We received a reward at the end of this grey, snowy day: a sunset that illuminated the water as well as the sky. Greg took this picture outside our house, looking down toward the lower orchard and the western channel of Shelburne Harbour. 

Wreck of the Joan Kielberg

At five o'clock in the morning on January 23, 1930, the four masted Nova Scotia schooner Joan Kielberg caught fire off McNutt's Island. Her crew left the burning ship, probably by life boats. They would have made for the closest shore, which was this one.  They may have landed near the lighthouse. It would be a difficult place to land without breaking up entirely. Cape Roseway, where the lighthouse stands, is edged by tumbles of sharp jagged boulders, steep vertical cliffs and pounding waves. There is a cobble beach to the west of the light; maybe the crew could come to shore safely there.The ship was carrying a load of coal from New York to Halifax.  

I imagine that the crew, wet and freezing, went to the lighthouse, or maybe to the fishermen's houses along the south west shore of the island. Maybe the lighthouse keeper saw the ship on fire and sounded an alarm and the island folk braved darkness and cold to help. I'll bet it was an exciting day for the island children.

The New York Times reported: "... at noon the charred hulk was riding at anchor in the heavy swell off Cape Roseway, McNutt Island." She was later towed into the inner part of Shelburne Harbour.  Joan Kielberg was registered at LaHave, according to the shipwreck database at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. So she wouldn't have been very far from home when she was lost. A four masted schooner in 1930 had probably seen better days. 

The image I've included here is of the Savannah, another four masted schooner, just to give you an idea of what Joan Kielberg looked like. This image is at Ship Wiki and is available for use through the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 License.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Goodbye Orion

Since I only know a few constellations, I notice when one of them disappears. A bit earlier each night now, Orion slowly slips away below the western horizon. By midnight he is gone. Just after our last frost date, in May, he will have travelled out of sight completely. Orion is a migratory constellation, cartwheeling south as the hummingbirds and monarch butterflies and songbirds are flying north. I imagine their greeting as they pass each other in the sky: birds and butterflies dipping their wings in tiny salute, Orion silently pointing their way northward.   

I miss Orion already. I love the way he dances across the cold night sky. I step outside the breezeway door on a clear night and think I must be peering over the very edge of the universe. Familiar Orion helps me focus on what I can recognize in that vastness, and helps keep my primal fears in check. I think he has been doing that for people for a long, long time.  We can let him go for a while, in warmer seasons, when we are naturally braver and more at ease.

Odd and topsy-turvey as it seems to me, Orion's gradual departure is a sign of spring.  And he will return, this magnificent figure, next winter. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading locally

Eating locally has reached its tipping point. It's been building for a decade now, coming in from the fringe. Books -- The Hundred Mile Diet; Animal, Vegetable Miracle; Omnivore's Dilemma-- and movements -- Slow Food, Kitchen Gardens International -- have raised general awareness that our expectation that we will eat, as a matter of course, things out of season or out of our planting zone, or processed food products with eternal shelf lives, has had its day. On Friday Michelle Obama began a vegetable garden on the south lawn of the White House. Here in Nova Scotia, farmers markets are gaining ground each year. The era of uniformity and industrialization in food, about fifty years in the making, is sputtering to an end. Let's hope.

Reading is another way we can benefit from a more local orientation. Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes was recently chosen as the winner in the 2009 Canada Reads competition. It's the compelling story of a woman captured as a girl in her native Africa and sold as a slave in the American colonies. She eventually escapes to freedom with the British during the American Revolution and is a part of the tumultuous founding of Shelburne and Birchtown. She leaves Nova Scotia with John Clarkson's fleet and returns to Africa, to Sierra Leone. It is a remarkable story, so remarkable that fiction must be the best way to tell its astonishing truth. Yet every bit of it is historically grounded.

The Book of Negroes -- partially set just across Shelburne Harbour from us -- helped me understand better this place Greg and I have chosen to call home. What other books could be out there, I wondered, that could help me understand our new culture? I began a sort of random search, and now I have a new blog category: reading locally. There are wonderful writers -- mostly out of print -- who tell of life within one hundred kilometres of McNutt's Island. I don't know whether many people read these writers nowadays. But I will do my best to find them and read them and then write a little something about them now and then, so that if you wanted to know more about this local culture by way of reading, you could.

Within one hundred kilometres of McNutt's Island -- and probably within one hundred kilometres of every place on earth -- there is, I imagine, a rich garden of local reading, filled with tastes and textures and experiences and perceptions that you just can't get anywhere else.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Jerusalem Farm

Here's a map of the old Perry Place, still called the Hyde Place, which we named New Jerusalem Farm. If you want to know why we picked that name, you can read about it in the post from November 8, 2008.  

There are many secret places I left off the map on purpose. The elves and the deer deserve their privacy.  I did not disclose the nests of the birds or the hiding places of the snakes or the paths of the sheep.  I did not indicate exactly where the Old Fellers dwell. But none of these secret places is very hard to find, and if you search you will discover them. 

In this picture the apple trees are full of fruit and the waves are gentle and blue and the raspberries are ripe and the woodpile is mighty.  This is about as true to life as it gets here at New Jerusalem Farm, especially on the last official day of winter.

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Unwinding the spruce

But what does Greg do all day? That lazy fellow. You mean aside from the baking and cooking, the trips to town, the hard cider making, the propane tank replacing, the snow shovelling, the pumping out of Chopper's innards after a big storm, that sort of thing? It's an easy answer. He cuts wood.

Early in the morning he leaves the house, whistling, with his axe upon his shoulder. He goes to the woods where he begins to cut. And there he remains until lunch time -- dinner, they call it around here. And there he remains until supper. And now that the light is longer, there he remains again in the evening. Now and then, I imagine, he rests with his back against a tree and talks to the friendly forest creatures who gather around him, their shyness overcome by his growing familiarity.

In between felling trees and carrying off tree rubbish to an undisclosed place where it becomes a valuable ecological habitat for small mammals, he splits logs. So you see Greg's life is truly simple. He might sometimes wish that it were more varied, but for now it is not.

He has carved out his wood cutter's role entirely by himself. And by adhering faithfully to his vision and purpose he has accomplished great things. When we first saw this property -- uninhabited for more than decade -- it was overrun with spruce. A few spruce -- even a spruce forest in its proper place -- can be a beautiful thing. Spruce growing up randomly and impulsively and even you could say compulsively out of every nook and cranny is not. We did not know, for example, that there were two unbroken parallel boundaries of old stone walls along the outer edges of the property. Nor that apple trees hid near those walls. We did not know about the old farm's springs and wells and bogs. They were all obscured by spruce, standing, or lying, where they ought not.

Michaelangelo was said to have viewed his sculpting as a process of revealing the essence of the raw stone he carved. Greg is a forest Michaelangelo. As he topples the spruce trees he reveals the essence of the place. His most recent project has been to disentangle a crowded patch of trees and so make space for a grove of hackmatack, a noble tree.

We did not know the potential hackmatack grove was there, in a bog near the lower road, until Greg began to cut down the spruce that crowded that corner. We didn't know the bog was there either, beneath criss-crossed logs and fallen branches. Bogs have a wonderfully mysterious quality, with their hidden watery places and their soft mossy ground which you must tred upon with care. Hackmatack have an affinity for bogs and so do we.

Greg labouriously cut the spruce and pulled out the litter. One dead spruce had fallen so that it was caught in the high branches of a gigantic hackmatack. He hoisted it on his shoulders and walked around and around the hackmatack, unwinding the spruce until he could pull it away. His life is simple, but not without its challenges.

Early every morning the wood cutter leaves the house, whistling, his axe upon his shoulder. And now we can see the hackmatack, and the stone wall that runs all the way down to the shore.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday walk

On Sunday I set off with a large heavy duty trash bag. I thought I could wander around and gaze at things but at the same time be useful. In retrospect I don't think those two purposes work very well together. 

I should have stuck to the main road, where I could have easily cleaned up a big stretch from our house to a couple of camps near the government wharf. Along the main road the trash is just whatever the ATVers have thrown off as they go whizzing by in summer: beer cans, plastic pop bottles and paper wrappers. There really isn't very much of it; it would have been light work, and I would have had a sense of accomplishment at the end.

But instead I left the road at the place where the creek tumbles into Indian Cove and set off along the shore, walking north toward the government wharf.  It isn't individuals who litter here, but rather the vast traffic of the sea. You can't really finger any culprits. It's just flotsam and jetsam, the ebb and flow of cumulative trash created by all the world-wide container ships and fishing boats and cruise liners. Saint Paul would call it the powers and the principalities.  It's abstract, anonymous, systemic and unaccountable. It has come to be; and now it just is. 

Mostly I went for the plastic wrappers and bags, thinking about that vast sea of tangled plastic bags said to be floating somewhere down near Australia.  But I picked up the other stuff too, if I could fit it in. And soon enough I found myself lugging a huge heavy sack, like Santa Claus but not in a good way. Now what? My fun little excursion had turned into a big project.  I hadn't planned to tackle the powers and principalities today. 

I lugged my bag along the rocks, stopping frequently to rest it, until I got to the camps.  I pulled it to the road and thought I would leave it there and come back later with the ATV to pick it up. But two huge spruce trees were down over the road. I crawled beneath them and pushed and dragged the bag as well.  I lugged it as far as the still-frozen pond and left it there.
Today I will bring it the rest of the way home. Then I'll need to take it down to Chopper and eventually to the municipal recycling dumpster in town. And all that for about two hundred metres of shore line.   There must be a better way to clean up an island.

In the meantime I had left my burden at the water and so felt as light as a sinner redeemed. I walked home along the main road, admiring the sunlight, newly freed.  The shore line is still littered with the sins of the world but it's not entirely within my power to restore it to its original state.     

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Island osprey

We caught our first sight of the female osprey on March 14th, as she lingered in a tree near the shore.  A pair returns to the island each spring.  

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The dregs

Never one to waste anything, Greg took the thick dregs from our fresh cider and made bread with a beer bread recipe. Greg's Dregs Bread, I call it. Delicious. We are in the season of dregs. I comb the wood pile for aged wood. We are down to the last few gallons of the fresh apple cider we froze last fall. And our freezer full of vegetables and meat is almost empty.

Last summer we started our vegetable garden late. We had to restore the old garden bed and fence it in so the deer and rabbits couldn't get inside and all of that took us a pretty long time. It was late June before we got anything in the ground. 

I didn't have a clue what I was doing in that first garden, but things grew well anyway. And then at the end of the growing season we had piles of packages of blanched vegetables: chard, turnip and beet greens, sugar snap peas and beans. Greg made lots of soups and casseroles using the squashes and turnips and beets and carrots. He made fantastic pesto with carrot tops and parsley and walnuts, and an amazing thing with beets and walnuts. And from our cabbage he made the most incredible sauerkraut I have ever tasted in my life. It's all gone now. 

But spring is coming -- surely -- and this year we are ready. I have bought the seeds I need at Spencer's Garden Centre and I have put labels on each package for the date of planting. It looks like the leeks and cabbage and onions require indoor seed starting. So I'm ready with that too. Our green house will be the breezeway, our own little catch-all place for now.   

I know more than I did this time last year, so I think we will have a better yield, enough to last until the summer of 2010. And there's the old rhubarb patch we restored last summer. So we will have the lovely thrill of rhubarb in May, and the first snow peas and sugar snaps and mesclun and chard and early beets and early turnips, a fresh bounty, all by the end of June.    

In this dregs of winter we have run out of aged wood, vegetables, our frozen fresh cider, and patience.  Now we are waiting and watching and eager for spring in ways we never could have imagined before we moved here, back when the seasons barely affected our lives.  

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tide pool worlds

If you walk northward along the western shore from our house you soon come to Indian Point. It's a remote place where the harbour seals enjoy the sun, where we once found two rams in a state of regal retirement, and where on another early foray we came upon a fawn, curled up, looking at us, not moving a muscle.  

Indian Point has fantastic tide pools. A tide pool is always in process. Each one is a small isolated world of its own, and then the high tide washes over it, and it loses its separateness and becomes at one with oceanic vastness.  This week tiny fish lurked in the tide pools, like shadows. They darted into mud banks and crevices when they sensed my presence.  I wonder if these little fish cling to their own pool when the high tide comes in, thinking it safe, or whether they swim bravely away into the wide sea.  

Algae drifted beneath the tide pool surfaces, spring green and diaphanous. They look innocent, but they may be quietly planning their ultimate takeover of the world -- the big world, not this little one.  Or they could be as graceful and lovely as they appear, giving safe harbour and food for small creatures.  Or both, maybe, since they belong to this ambiguous world, where something's always washing in or washing out, being born and dying, bearing its own identity and becoming part of everything else.    

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seals at Indian Point

The seals like to sun themselves on the rocks off Indian Point. As the days grow warmer we will begin to hear them singing, but for now they seem content to lie about.  They did not seem terribly perturbed when I crept up on them the other day. I used my best seal stalking techniques, which mostly consisted of trying not to slip on the rockweed and make a big splash which would likely make them disgusted with me. I don't have a telephoto lens, but I cropped this photo so that you can sort of see them, even if not too well. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Island spring, 1915

Almost a hundred years ago Nova Scotia's superintendent of schools devised a way to observe and record natural phenomena and seasonal human activities across the province. Each school was given a check list of two hundred phenomena and activities and asked to record the dates of their observations. You can read more about this province-wide phenology project here.

The collected data contains only one year of observations from the school on McNutt's Island, in 1915. And there are only fifty two dated records from that year, not two hundred. But one partial year is better than none at all. So this year I will try to compare my own observations with those of the island children in 1915. This will not be scientific at all since I am just a curious person wandering about. And two single sets of observations nearly a hundred years apart can hardly indicate anything. But I hope it will be interesting anyway. It was so kind of Chris Majka at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History to pull out the data for McNutt's Island and send it to me! This is an example of why I love Nova Scotia. People can be so glad to help.

The McNutt's Island list begins with the American robin migrating north, which was noted on March 11, 1915. Now we have a big gang of robins that doesn't migrate south in the first place. They live here all winter, and so we see them quite often. But if a huge flock in sunglasses and straw hats swarms the place any time soon I'll be sure to take note.

Thousand Eyes and Journey North are two online phenology projects oriented toward school children. They offer a fascinating way to watch and participate as nature's patterns unfold.

The image of trailing arbutus -- Nova Scotia's provincial flower -- is by Annie Prat, and is courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM).

Monday, March 9, 2009

How spring comes

Saturday was windy but filled with sun.  It was warm enough that I sat outside next to the house, sheltered from the wind, and read a book Greg had ordered from the library, Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer (Anansi, 2008). I hope this book doesn't end, though I see that the library expects to get it back on March 24th. While I read I watched a single lobster boat in the harbour just beyond the point, toing and froing over its traps.  

In the mid-Atlantic, where we lived until now, spring came all in a day or two with a huge tada! There was no question about it. In DC I looked for that one moment when the trees put out their new leaves, so that all at once the city (which is filled with deciduous trees) was wreathed in the palest, faintest green. 

Here the trees are mostly spruce, and keep their colour.  Instead of any obvious signs, it is the light that changes everything. On Saturday the sun poured over the island and turned it gold. The moss that covers the lower orchard was bronze and cream, and the rockweed and the irish moss waved goldenly in the cove water, and the ends of the logs in the woodpile were round and flat and yellow. 

The boulders that are not grey by nature were golden, with flecks of gold, and old grey rocks wore chartreuse moss. The dried grasses along the shore and in the old fields were pale gold. Lichen on stumps and rocks were dark amber, the colour of maple syrup in sunlight. The tide pools and the mud puddles were mirrors of yellow light held up for the sky to see.   Everything either absorbed the sun and became luminous, or reflected it, like the harbour did at the end of the day when the wind died down and sunset brought the whole thing to a close. 

Soon more particular signs will show up.  The first snake will unfurl along a rock, streams will slither and clatter down into the cove, tiny fern shoots will emerge next to the lower road.  For now, though, spring is not yet anything in particular. It's just the light, everywhere.  

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sheep on the point today

The sheep are out on the point today, forty or fifty of them, in three distinct groups. A dedicated sheep voyeur, I can watch them quite clearly from here with the binoculars. Many are lying down, close to one another, nestled on eel grass or cobblestone. Others are standing around eating the seaweed which is plentiful along that shore. They are on the leeward side and protected from the rising wind.  

In their thick fleecy coats, they seem not to mind the flurrying snow, and today's just-below-freezing temperature may seem balmy compared to the often bitter cold of winter. If the wind gets too strong they will head inland, with a minimum of fuss, to seek the protection of the forest. But for now they appear tranquil, as they usually do. Very little in life seems to bother the sheep. 

Yesterday the local flock of about nineteen was back around the house, nibbling away. They spent the night behind the vegetable garden. Then this morning they headed down past the fish house, returning to the point via their cove shore route. 

The black faced ram is still with our local flock. Greg has named him The Major because he is the very model of a modern major general. Today he is lying down near the sea's edge, a little removed from his group, looking quite dignified. He is always dignified, and imposing. We think the girls actually run the show, but allow him to assume that he is in charge.  

The ewes are almost half way through their pregnancies, which commenced soon after Leroy and Arnold released The Major and his brother rams on December 21st. "Five months minus five days," Arnold reminded us then. So we will see the new lambs around mid-May.   
The ordinary behaviour of wild sheep on one of Nova Scotia's sheep islands is not observed or reported very often anymore, I think. Now their presence is so much a part of our lives here that we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to be able to watch them, and what an unusual experience it is to have these calm and woolly neighbours who manage quite well for themselves.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On the edge of the Gulf of Maine

We are just beyond the edge of the Gulf of Maine, which officially ends at Cape Sable.  But something as huge as the Gulf of Maine doesn't stop at a boundary line. McNutt's Island, with its glacier-scraped rocky shores, its bogs and boulders and marshes and forests, its beds of rockweed and Irish moss, its eagles, ospreys, great blue herons and cormorants and its colony of seals, shares the habitat of the Gulf of Maine

And the waters beyond the island are swayed by the powerful tides that define the region. One friend who fishes longline in summer and fall, when it isn't lobster season here, says he and his crew usually don't go out during the week of the full moon. The tides can be so strong then that fishing becomes unproductive.  I wonder at that. Imagine your practical, daily life affected so directly by the tides of the ocean and the phases of the moon.  

The great power of the underwater ebb and flow, the churning back and forth, makes the Gulf of Maine one of the most productive marine life areas in the world. It's actually a sea, mostly enclosed by underwater banks and elevations, with a deep channel that allows the waters of the Atlantic to rush in toward the Bay of Fundy and then pour out again, so that the waters are continually renewed.  There's a gyre, too, an ocean current that flows counter-clockwise and constantly stirs everything within the nutrient rich soup pot that is the gulf.  A gyre can be a good thing, in spite of what W.B.Yeats implied.   

On the surface -- if you are sailing across it, say, on the ferry from Maine to Yarmouth -- the Gulf of Maine appears to be all horizontal. The view is undifferentiated waves, as far as your eye can see. Nothing is happening here, you might think to yourself. And all the while just beneath you is a submerged many-dimensioned world of mountains and plateaus and valleys, sunlit shallows and dark depths, currents swirling and rushing, and secret places not yet known.     

Image courtesy of NOAA


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On the edge of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

McNutt's Island is on the edge of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  These reserves are protected areas not subject to human activity except for research and monitoring, and some traditional uses by local communities.  The Southwest Nova Scotia Biosphere Reserve consists of the core area, made up of the vast Tobeatic Wilderness and Kejimkujik National Park. Then, like a doughnut, all the rest of southwest Nova Scotia -- five counties-- surrounds the core area and is called an area of cooperation. Since we sit out here at the edge of southwestern Nova Scotia, we are on the edge of this area of cooperation. 

There are about four hundred UNESCO Biosphere Reserves around the world, and thirteen in Canada. The Southwest Nova Scotia Biosphere reserve is the first in Atlantic Canada. The reserves are places where environments are monitored and conserved, where scientific research is carried on, and where large-scale extractive processes ( for instance, logging or mining ) are not.       

Within the Tobeatic Wilderness and Kejimkujik National Park are a wide variety of animals and plants including endangered species sited within an environment of forests, lakes, marshes, bogs, the headwaters of nine rivers, and archaeological sites important to the Mi'kmaq First Nations. You can paddle and portage through a landscape that evokes the time when these rivers were the primary routes for the Mi'kmaq travelling back and forth between the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic coast. One of my dreams is to do some of this paddling, maybe as early as this year.

The Biosphere Reserve sits on the edge of my consciousness, something significant just out of sight.  The interior of southwest Nova Scotia has a compelling wildness to it. Our first direct experience of that wildness came when we drove from New Brunswick to Shelburne  almost two years ago, in late spring. Consulting our map, we turned left from the Annapolis Valley and entered the interior.  Every once in a while highway signs announced, unnecessarily, "Rough Road Ahead."   We were on a major secondary road, one of a few that crosses the province along the shorter north-south axis. Sometimes we encountered a few houses close together, but aside from that we encountered this astonishing emptiness. 

We had turned off from the main highway without a full tank of gas, never thinking that there wouldn't be a gas station along the way. As we got closer to empty, Greg reminded me that according to our map we would soon come to the entrance to Kejimkujik National Park. "Don't worry," he said with confidence. "There will be a gas station there." We envisioned not only a gas station but also restaurants and ye olde souvenir shoppes -- a little cluster of ticky tacky.  Is there any other way to enter a national park?  

Apparently there is. The entrance to Kejimkujik was just that, an entrance, with no parasitical excrescences attached for the benefit of the bored or the unprepared. Woe to the one who set off without having packed a picnic lunch and filled up the gas tank! And so we Americans learned our first lesson about travelling southwest Nova Scotia style. 

Since Europeans and Americans began to settle this area sporadically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the small population of southwestern Nova Scotia has clustered along the coasts -- the biosphere's area of cooperation --  and left the interior alone.  Over the years, the main threats to the integrity of the interior environment have been not from population growth but from mining and logging. Now its layers of wilderness, national park and biosphere reserve designations protect this vast place. 

Even though we are out on the edge of the Biosphere Reserve, and don't really think about it all that much, its wildness balances the other, more immediate wildness we encounter, the sea. About which I shall write at another time.  

Image from SNBRA

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dangerous island

An account of the accidental death of two young men from nearby Carleton Village in 1856 casts light on what it was like to live on McNutt's Island back then.

James and William DeMings, ages eighteen and seventeen, rowed across the western harbour to the island early on a Saturday morning in January.  They planned to go hunting.  They visited some of the houses on the island, including the families at the light house. It was late afternoon when they left the light house, and darkness would have been coming on quickly. Their bodies were later found in a deep crevice in the rocky cliffs along the eastern side of the island, north of Middle Head.  It was supposed that they had shot some birds there, then gone out on the rocks to get the birds from their retriever, slipped, fallen and drowned. Their dog swam the mile across the harbour and returned home.

The eastern side of the island, like the southern cape, is edged with high rocky cliffs and steep drop-offs. Huge ice-age boulders pile and jumble. Deep gaps open up without warning among the rocks, and plunge straight down into churning waves. It's the place where ships smash to smithereens on the rocks. It's a place where you could easily lose your footing, and in falling darkness and January cold it would be even more dangerous. 

That area is not easy to get to today, but you can. There are narrow sheep paths that wind through a dense forest near the cliff's edge.  Greg and I have ventured along an old ATV track in that vicinity. But it petered out and we had to retrace our steps after we arrived at the rocks. Someone told us you can go along the entire eastern side of the island following the sheep paths if you don't mind crawling on your hands and knees to get through some of it.  

There were probably real paths along the cliffs in 1856, and so it would have been a reasonable route for James and William to take, after visiting the light house, to get back to their boat.  

I can't imagine walking along that path high above the eastern channel in January, with no flashlight, looking for ducks to shoot in late afternoon gloom, willing to go out on the rocks, then getting back in a boat and rowing home across the harbour. There's so much about island life back then that seems incomprehensibly difficult compared to the way we live now. 

But when James and William set out for McNutt's that morning they probably didn't think anything about it.     

The story of the DeMing brothers can be found in Lost Mariners of Shelburne County, ed. Eleanor Robertson Smith, complier/writer Joanna Hyde Haeghaert (Stoneycroft, 1991), available through the Shelburne County Genealogical Society.