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.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Song of the toad

Last night a tiny, dark trilling wafted into the house. The toads were back! I felt a rising sense of good cheer. I had been missing them and wondering when they would emerge from their winter's hibernation. After only two years here I have learned that life is not quite the same when the toads are asleep. After the toads wake up the whole island seems more interesting, more lively, more full of surprises. And now it's about to get that way again.

But first they sing, the males calling to the females with their musical trills. And so last night we listened to their songs floating up from the bog: tenor, baritone, bass. The bog, I'll bet, is a romantic meeting place on a fine spring night with its red sliver of new moon and canopy of twinkling stars, if you are a toad in search of love.

The island is filled with these humble creatures, though they are easy to overlook. They sound quite debonair in the bog, of course. But then when you meet them later on, on land, they are so remarkably slow that they can seem a little dim-witted, like clods of earth suddenly come to life.

As much as you are surprised to see them they are generally dumbfounded to see you. What could that be, they wonder, staring at you. And while they ought to be moving on, lest you be planning toad soup for supper, they take a while to gather their thoughts.

Once last summer I interrupted a toad when I moved a rock -- his rock, it turned out to be -- along the side of the house. He slowly made for the wall of the house, which he tried to climb up with a sort of frantic slowness. Eventually, with great perseverance, he made his way several feet along the edge of the cedar shakes -- occasionally trying out the wall-climbing option again -- until he found a small entrance into the darkness beneath the house, and disappeared.

Two toads took up housekeeping at opposite ends of the new garden last summer. There was one near the grape arbour: Toad of the North. And the second near the asparagus patch: Toad of the South. I hoped they would come back to the garden again this year, so I have built little toad houses for them, of rocks and boards, with a toad-sized pond in the front yard for swmming. I hope it's all to their liking.

How toads find their houses I do not know, any more than how bats or martins find the houses people make for them. It seems extravagant to hope that in the whole wide world a toad might come upon the very house you had made for him. But then why shouldn't it work like that? After all, many will hear the toad singing tonight: the lambs, the sparrows, the mice, the herons, us. But only his own true love will follow his song and search slowly through the dark spring bog until she finds him.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

One fine day

The flock of wild island sheep that visits our house has eleven lambs now, four sets of twins and three singles. 

The ewes are good mothers. They keep very close to the newborns, mother and baby resting together after the trauma of birth. As the lambs get older, stronger, and more independent, the ewes keep an eye on them but only occasionally interfere with their fun. 
The lambs cavort about with enormous energy but then they need to lie down and rest.

There are still some pregnant ewes lying about, so we expect a few more births in the next few days.  Last night a ewe gave birth to twins in the area between the two parallel stone walls south of the house, the same area where the very first twins were born. The ewe and her lambs stayed over there until this afternoon, then moved to the front yard, and eventually rejoined the flock when it came up from the lower orchard. 
The Major, whom we admire greatly for his gentle dignity, is with the flock more often than not. Most of the lambs bear some of The Major's markings -- black stockings or feet and black faces, and one pair of twins both have the beginnings of The Major's curly horns. The white lambs are beautiful, but the ones with markings are even more adorable. 
The newborn lambs seem so frail compared with the now-jaunty lambs who were born a week ago.The older lambs -- ranging from a couple of days old to a week old -- are full of fun and energy.They are remarkably relational. They initiate play with each other, racing around here and there in little groups. One lamb kept looking at its mother, wanting to go off and join the gang, but not quite ready to leave her. They do, though. You can almost see them gain confidence each day. Not that they don't still need their mothers. They will be nursing for a while yet. 

I think sheep have no depth perception. If I stand behind the picket fence or if I am inside the garden, behind the fish net fence, they seem oblivious to my presence.  We move slowly and quietly and they usually let us go about our work without getting too worked up about sharing the outside with us, as long as we don't actually come toward them. 
I'm continually amazed that we have the great good fortune of being able to watch the lambs so often during these enchanting first days.  

Friday, May 29, 2009

The history of rhubarb

When we first came to this place we discovered a forlorn little clump of rhubarb. It was scruffy and choked with weeds, emerging along the edge of the ghostly vegetable garden, among the daffodils and June lilies. It was the remnants of the Old Fellers' rhubarb, going back, we guessed, a hundred years or so. It was the sort of thing you wanted to look away from. But there it was, still coming up, even though it had been years since anyone had laid eyes on it. You had to admire its fortitude. But we could not pay any attention to something as slight as rhubarb during those first months when we were so anxious about our old leaky house and the coming winter.    

Last spring we still had not yet turned to restoring the garden. But we watched as the rhubarb began to appear again, between the return of the White-throated Sparrow and the birth of the new lambs. Greg was a big fan of rhubarb. It was a taste of his New England roots. And now it seemed that in moving to the island we had lucked into a rhubarb heaven. Skipper's father, the island’s lighthouse keeper for so many years, had been a serious grower of rhubarb. He swore by the application of ash. Captain Van had died, but his rhubarb patches continued to flourish each year behind his house on the mainland, in Gunning Cove, where he had retired.     

One day Skipper brought us a big bag full of the long red stems, huge green leaves flopping.  Greg searched his cookbooks and announced that only in my old Farm Journal cookbook could he find a recipe he liked, for rhubarb cobbler. It was well received among our adult neighbours, but too tart for the kids.  Some of the Van Buskirk extended family were fond of making rhubarb juice from the stalks, boiling them down to a concentrate to which they could add other ingredients. It seemed a practical and delicious use of so much rhubarb. But Greg’s commitment to cobbler was unyielding. 

More and more rhubarb appeared at our kitchen door, mostly with Skipper. Then Charlie’s wife Queenie sent over some rhubarb from her own patch, telling Greg that now he would see that the rhubarb from the hamlet of Churchover, two miles up the road, was much better than Gunning Cove rhubarb.  

Last summer we finally returned the old vegetable garden to a semblance of its former self. We dug up the Old Fellers' scraggly rhubarb and replanted it in its new bed. In the fall we dug up a big clump from Queenie's garden in Churchover and added that too.    

The other day I went out and cut the first of our rhubarb. We got enough for Greg to make a rhubarb pudding cake that's sort of like strawberry shortcake. Delicious.  

There was a time when rhubarb was the anticipated first fruit of spring after a long dreary season of mud and turnips and old potatoes.  And it was more than just the rhubarb itself, as wonderful as it was.  Its arrival contained the promise of strawberries, and after that raspberries and gooseberries and currants and blueberries, and then apples and pears and cranberries and deep purple concord grapes -- all from right where you lived, your own garden or your orchard, or from someplace nearby that you knew as well as you knew your own. For us, that time has come again. 

Rhubarb Pudding Cake
 (Farm Journal's Country Cookbook, Doubleday & Co, Inc, New York, 1972, p. 335)

Serve in dessert bowls. Pass a pitcher of cream to pour over

4 c. diced fresh rhubarb
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. water
1/4 c. shorterning
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. milk

Cook rhubarb, 1 c. sugar and water until rhubarb is tender; keep hot. Cream shortenng and 1/2 c. sugar; beat in egg and vanilla. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; add alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Pour batter into greased 9" square pan. Spoon hot rhubarb sauce over batter. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) 40 minutes. Makes 9 servings. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The other rabbit

Last week I heard an urgent, terrorized screaming coming from the direction of the lower road. I was close by, near the garden, and when I got to the road I saw a mink and a rabbit intertwined, writhing in furious mortal battle. 

I should not have, I think now, but I intervened. I threw rocks at the mink until it ran away, and then Greg came and caught the wounded rabbit, which we took home and cared for, haplessly, awkwardly, but could not, of course, either comfort or save. It was terrified of us. It was the inhabitant of another world, something entirely wild, and in spite of our best intentions we could not reach across that boundary.  

The rabbit was not alone when the mink attacked it. Another rabbit was with it, or nearby.While the rabbit was fighting for its life the other rabbit sat in the middle of the road, about fifty feet beyond, and watched. When I arrived and started throwing rocks at the mink, the other rabbit continued to sit in the middle of the road and watch. After the mink ran away and Greg crawled through the underbrush and caught the wounded rabbit and we began to carry it toward the house, I looked back. The other rabbit had not moved. It was still watching.  

I wonder about the relationship between the two rabbits, what they were to each other. I can't know how, but they were connected. Nor can I know what the other rabbit was seeing, from its animal perspective and watching on the other side, beyond the event, further on up the road. But it was seeing something. 

It felt wrong to separate the two of them, to take the dying rabbit away from its familiar world, its watching friend or brother or mate. But of course the mink would have returned -- did in fact return, before we had even left the scene -- to drag its dinner away. Anyway, by then we were well along in our unconsidered course of action, and we would see it through. 

When I first saw the attack my impulse was to do something. But I hope the next time I come upon such a bloody, wild moment I will remember the other rabbit. In silence and stillness the other rabbit witnessed the whole terrifying event. It did not run away and hide. What it did was not second best. What it did was not nothing. What it did was, I now think, more right than what I did. 

It's an image for me of something holy, of something, even, like prayer: the other rabbit, in the sun-lit road, watching the whirlwind of activity that was hungry mink, desperate rabbit, us; watching the little tragedy unfold, holding it all within its steady gaze.    

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Island of ferns

For the next few months the island will be covered with ferns. They will wave gently along the roadsides and soften the raggedy look of the skeleton forests. Already they have begun to spring up along the stone walls. They are chartreuse now; they will become darker shades of green over the summer and finally turn toward warm browns and coppers after the frost. Mostly they are Bracken and Hay-scented Fern, I think. But there are other varieties, too.
One tall fern grows up in large mounds along roads and paths. Ferns that grow from mounds like this are the Royal Fern, the Interrupted Fern, and the Cinnamon Fern. I think this one is the Cinnamon Fern. It is not as bright in colour as the Bracken and Hay-scented Fern, but it is certainly more imposing. It is beginning to unfurl. 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lamb watching

Greg and I are spying on the lambs. It's a cool, rainy day anyway, good for being inside. We walk from window to window with the binoculars and the camera, observing but unobserved. The lambs born first show off their superiority: they butt the smaller ones, who sometimes butt back, and sometimes just settle down on the ground, or run off to nurse. The older lambs like to be king of the mountain, and climb up onto any higher level they can find: a granite boulder caught here since the ice age, the concrete platform of the solar tracker, a wicker chair. They butt the others off: get out of here; this is mine! 

There’s nothing these lambs meet up with that does not incite their curiosity. They must explore wood piles, daffodils, chairs, tree trunks, propane tanks, ATV wheels, whatever is in their way. It’s all new!  They literally gambol about.  They are gamboling distilled.  They leap off the ground from all four feet, they bounce across the grass like the world is their trampoline, they jump over each other. They are so new that I can see their entire bodies, their muscles and bones and inward shapes, not yet layered over with meat or fat or wool, drying umbilical cords still dangling beneath them. 

They are so new that they firmly believe their own mother is the most beautiful mother in the world, even if a more objective observer could say she was a bit mangy. Then, suddenly overtaken by so much newness, they lie down and rest for a while. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lamb island

We have been watching for lambs for almost a week. Leroy and Arnold, the shepherds, left the rams on the island on December 21st. Arnold says the due date will be five months minus five days from the time the rams are dropped off. But maybe the rams were a little slow this year, or maybe pregnancies take as long as they take. 

The sheep go off on their own to give birth. On Wednesday we heard a lamb bleating somewhere, then yesterday we saw this mother and her two lambs. They were about two hundred yards from the house, near a wall that Greg uncovered last summer, when he cleared that area of spruce.  Behind the wall is a forest just to the south of us, where the lambs may have been born.  Twins and even triplets are not unusual. 

The flock of sheep that stays around this part of the island -- a shifting number between a dozen and two dozen -- has been hanging out near the house lately. They lie about in the lower orchard, then amble up to the front yard, back orchard, side yard, finding delicate spring taste treats everywhere they go.  Three of the seven rams are often with the ewes, though they sometimes wander off on their own.   

McNutt's is one of the sheep islands along Nova Scotia's southwest coast. To read more about the wild island sheep as part of Nova Scotia's heritage and history you can search this blog under the phrase "wild island sheep."  Harry Thurston has a lovely essay on the wild sheep of McNutt's Island. It was first published in Canadian Geographic ( "Nova Scotia's Sheep Islands," June/July 1990) and reprinted in his collection of essays called The Sea Among the Rocks: Travels in Atlantic Canada, Pottersfield Press, 2002. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rearranging the universe

I have been filling an old wooden cart with stones, so that Greg can hitch the cart to the ATV and then take the stones down to the path that runs through our bog. He stabilized the path about a year ago by dumping stones on it. But it's a bog. It will always need more stones. Luckily for us, we have them. 

When we moved here two years ago, Skipper made us a driveway from the lower road to our house. On top of the new driveway he laid down stones from the cobble beach. Afterward, there were cobbles left over, and in all the excitement they got dumped on top of an old stone wall. Now my job is to take the beach cobble away from the stone wall. I'm editing the wall, maybe. Or restoring it, but I think that's a word that claims too much for what I'm doing. I want the old stones to look at rest again, that's all. 

You might not think how easy it is to see the difference between these two kinds of stones. The old wall is composed of stones from beneath the earth, home-grown, gathered up and pitched to thigh-high more than a hundred years ago. These stones are pretty big, mostly. The kind you would want to clear out of your field if you were going to plant anything there. They are dark grey and brown, softened with decades of lichen and moss. For stones, they have a kind of visual quality of softness. They come across as settled stones, stones with roots.  These are the Old Fellers' stones. 

Then, on top of the old wall, are beach stones. They come from away, in a way. They would never have gotten here on their own. They are varied: white, speckled with  black, round and smooth as gull eggs; pale grey or darker, sharply edged; golden bronze and stippled. They are smaller than the Old Fellers' stones. Tossed by wave action onto the island's shore, they could have come from anywhere in the world, really. They are beautiful in their own right, but they just don't seem to belong. Maybe in another hundred years they would fit in here. But we have a better use for them, right now. Willy-nilly, they are moving on.

While I'm working a single snake has emerged from her lair within the old wall. She watches me for a while, then lays her head along a warm stone and basks, soaking up a pale spring sun.  She looks calm and peaceful, even when I get an arm's length from her.  We keep an eye on each other the whole time that I am loading the cart. She can probably trace her local roots back to the time of the Old Fellers themselves. But of course she has no need to. She knows where she belongs.  

Scientists now think there may be a universal consciousness embodied at the cellular level and including all material – not just what we have generally thought of as living things, but the inanimate as well.  In our narrowly rational twentieth century framework we thought that animism was a child-like thing, to be outgrown or overcome.  But the mystics have always recognized the world’s immanent spirit, the presence of life force in all things, even a stone. So the universe is constantly rearranged, sometimes very slowly, and sometimes as quickly as I can toss bits of it into the cart.  

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dangerous garden

As soon as the seedlings began to emerge I saw silvery traces of slime in the garden beds. The tiny turnip leaves were already being chewed. Slugs. I had read about setting out beer traps so on Saturday evening -- a perfect time for a party, or a drowning, however you prefer to imagine it -- I took matters into my own hands and did just that. I used the dregs of Greg's latest home brew, not wanting to waste the real thing on such undiscerning drinkers. 

My organic gardening book warned that I needed to build a complicated contraption or risk the collateral damage of beneficial insects. I ignored the advice, thinking it overly scrupulous.  I set out plastic lids turned upside down and filled them with beer dregs.  I imagined the slugs, under cover of darkness, slitherng eagerly into the lids and enjoying a brief moment of drunken ecstasy before permanent oblivion closed upon them. They would die happy I thought, or at least in a stupor. 

But when I checked the lids this morning there were no slugs. Instead I found four beetles deep in the brew. Disgusted with myself, I dumped three of them into the garden path and brought one into the house to identify it.  Margot and Dave and Skipper and Dylan were coming for breakfast, so I carefully placed the beetle on top of the book case. I thought a drowned beetle wasn't the most appetizing sight for guests, even if they are island neighbours who are used to a number of conditions not encountered in the polite world. I would look him up later. Then, getting ready for breakfast, I forgot about him.

"A bug just flew off the  shelf," Dylan announced during breakfast. It's true what they say: Dylan does have sharp eyesight. When I investigated it turned out that he was right. The bug -- miraculously revived -- now lay on the floor, on his back, waving his legs. After breakfast I identified him and put him back in the garden. I noticed that his three fellow partyers were not where I had dumped them earlier. They must have dragged themselves home with serious headaches. 

My tiny drunks are ground beetles, among the vast crew of beneficial insects you really don't want to lose. They are, literally, do-gooders. They were on my side all along! Or, more precisely, on the side of light and life and tiny turnip greens, which I like to think of as my side even though obviously that's not always true. They are ancient animals whose favourite menu includes slugs, snails, cutworms and root maggots. Sometimes they eat an earthworm, too, but nobody's perfect.  

I hope I have learned my lesson. From now on I'll depend on the mercy of ground beetles, sober and alert, patrolling the garden while I sleep, being good for the garden even though I don't deserve it. 

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quiet garden

The garden is so quiet that I can hear a single bumblebee wending her way through it. She flies in through the fish net fence and bumbles about before flying out again. She knocks her head against the net as she exits, but doesn't seem fazed.  Outside the fence a bee-feast of miniscule violets lies sprinkled across the grass, pale blue and creamy white. The last of the daffodils that border the garden are nodding, nectar deep inside their gold trumpets where only a bee can reach.  

I turned over the next-to-last bed this week. It will be for squash when the soil is warm enough. The biggest worm I have ever seen lives in this bed. He is more than a foot long, though he was in too much of a hurry to let me stretch him out and measure him. I found the fattest worm I have ever seen in the same bed, as thick as my thumb.  The most beautiful worm in the world may be in here, too. Possibly this bed is a designated zone for prize worms. I would like to give them an award for splendor. Instead, I walk around the garden and peer into every bed to admire the castings all the worms -- big and small, prize-winning and not -- leave behind as they silently munch their way through the soil.  

I planted the seeds too early but I was lucky. Here it is nearly Victoria Day and there has been no late frost after all. Orderly rows of tiny leaves -- turnips, beets, spinach, peas, chard, mustard, carrots -- have emerged, in spite of too much rain.  It is slow going. These are seeds, after all, not seedlings ready to pop out of their little plastic packs. Hidden in the earth among the worms, the seeds unfold and stretch upward. I hover and scrutinize the beds each day, wanting signs of progress, visible evidence that it's all going to be okay. But there is nothing for me to see until, one day, there is. My vegetable book tells me that the parsnips may take a month to break the soil. After my eager bumbling beginning the garden has taken me in hand and is giving me a make-up course in patience. 

More dangers lurk in the weeks ahead. But for now the garden is quietly spinning water and light into food as if that is the most natural thing in the world to do.  

Friday, May 15, 2009

How we go to town

We go to town by crossing the outer part of Shelburne Harbour in our boat Chopper. I rarely accompany Greg on these trips. He seems happy enough to go on his own and I am happy enough to stay home. In winter I pretend it's useful for me to stay home and keep the house warm. I don't know what my excuse is in the summer.  He -- or we -- try to cross only on calm days. Rain is fine but wind is not. Sometimes the air is tranquil but the water carries a powerful force from some earlier storm out at sea. Sometimes the wind kicks up out of nowhere as we are crossing. It is a very big harbour, and we have learned to be respectful of it. 

Our harbour trip has three parts. First we pass along the western shore of the island to its northern end.  To do this we go from our dock to the Horseshoe, which is the northern arm of the cove. It takes about ten minutes. Along the way we may see seals at Indian Point, if their rocks are exposed in a lowish tide.  At the Horseshoe the cormorants lurk along the shore like a bunch of good-for-nothings.  Sometimes gulls follow along behind us in the mistaken impression that Chopper is actually a fishing boat and may have something to offer them.   
Then we cross the outer harbour between the island and Fort Point.  Here you can see all of McNutt's Island sitting on the edge of the outer harbour, with the Atlantic Ocean beyond. The currents from the eastern channel and the western channel converge in the lee of McNutt's Island, along with the tide ebbing or flowing out of the inner harbour. The water here can be curious and unpredictable, at least for us inexperienced sailors. 
Finally we pass the conspicuous boulder at Fort Point and enter Gunning Cove. You can just see the conspicuous boulder perched on its ledge, with McNutt's Island beyond it.  
There are two fisheries wharves in Gunning Cove. One is called Gunning Cove and the other is called Fort Point. We dock at Fort Point.  It takes about ten minutes from the time we turn into the cove until we dock.  We are always happy to reach the mainland safely.    

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gulls nesting

Last evening I walked over to the Point, the cobble barrier that is the southern arm of the western cove.  I walked all the way out to the end before the gulls made any objection, and even then there were only six or seven of them wheeling about in the sky above the cove water. I had thought their behaviour would alert me as I came near a nest. But when I did, the gulls only continued to monitor my presence from their airy world. 
It was a beautiful nest, constructed mostly of eel grass and marsh grass. It was built right on the cobbles, on the leeward side of the point, above the high tideline. This is where sheep often graze for kelp. I wonder that they don't step on the nest. 

The eggs are about nine centimetres (maybe three and a half inches) long. Their colours are so like many of the stones that make up the cobble beach: a pale warm grey, with flecks of  bronze and brown.  

Gulls are sometimes under-appreciated creatures, what with their raucous, aggressive ways and their talent for scavenging. But their eggs are nothing less than wondrous, anyway.  
Garrett counted sixty three gulls' eggs on the Horseshoe last weekend. But these are the only ones I found on the Point. 

Monday, May 11, 2009

Our bird of the day

There were four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the bird feeder today, two females and two males. One of the males has a more faintly coloured triangular breast patch than the other. Maybe he is just immature. They have travelled from Central America to McNutt's Island and seemed tired and hungry after their long trip. They spent most of the day in the bird feeder, taking up all the space and eating constantly. 
The female does look a bit Sparrow-like, but she is bigger than a Sparrow, with the distinctive large beak that is a family characteristic. Once we got to know her we could see that she has markings and colouring that are clearly different from the Sparrow's. She is subtle, not showy, but very beautiful in her own right.  We admired one of the females as she perched on the edge of the new bird bath and drank water, tipping back her head.

We brought the bird feeder with us when we moved, but it wasn't until this spring that Greg attached it atop a spruce pole he sank in the side yard. Then he nailed an extra garbage can lid to a stump and filled it with water. Our bird bath. It's a little spa for birds, right next to the breezeway. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Momentary beauty

The red maple trees are flowering all over the island. At some places along the main road you can find stands of them, bright red flowers covering their tall arched branches.  Deeper into the forest they peek through the spruce trees. Their flowers precede their leaves, so this is the time when the red maple can be seen and identified most easily. By the end of May they will have subsided into the general greenery of early summer.  This is their moment of glory.   

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Island sounds

"Did you hear that?" Greg asked me. He looked alert, possibly alarmed. It was one of those sunny day back in April. We were eating lunch outside, at the picnic table. Greg often looks alert but hardly ever alarmed. So it caught my attention.  "Listen!" he said. "It sounds like a growl." But I couldn't hear anything like that.

We had been talking off and on about the possibility of a bobcat on the island. A couple of our neighbours said they had seen paw prints after the winter snows that belonged to some kind of cat. Could there be a bobcat lurking in the Skeleton Forest, just beyond that stone wall over there? The sunny day seemed shadowed by something ominous. Not that a bobcat would leap over the wall and attack us. It was just the notion that something potentially dangerous could be so near. But though we both listened, we didn't hear the sound again that day.

Then last week I was walking along the main road toward the government wharf when I heard growling, just like Greg had described it.  But now I could tell that the sound was coming from Indian Point. I made my way to the place where there is a little beaten path down from the road to the cove shore and looked toward Indian Point.  The tide was going out and six seals were balanced on their rocky resting places beyond the shore, talking to each other. It was their conversation that sounded like growling.  

Since the seals have probably been resting on those rocks for hundreds or even thousands of years, I can't imagine what they have left to talk about. The usual stuff, maybe: the weather, the lobster catch, stories of the good old days, the kids. Those conversations can go on forever.

When the weather gets warmer the seals will put away their growls and instead begin to sing, an eerie sound that will float across the island like the summer fog.  For now the growling is no longer alarming to us. It has become something we listen for, and are glad to hear.  

Friday, May 8, 2009

Water world

McNutt's Island is watery almost all the time. But right now, after countless days of rain, the island is saturated. A small stream that is quite well-behaved during most of the year is all out of bounds today, pooling upwards along the main road and cascading down into the cove by Indian Point.  Its water is red because of the high mineral content in this acidic soil. 

This is about the time when shad and juvenile eels, called glass eels because you can see right through them, swim upstream from the ocean water into local rivers. Last May we watched some young men setting a net for glass eels on the Roseway River where it runs into Shelburne Harbour. 

This island stream is not big enough to entice the shad or the glass eels. But it does create a commotion as it bubbles into waves of the cove, and shows off the wildness of spring.   

There are a few low places along the island's roads where water converges naturally. Even though the main road has drainage pipes beneath it at those places, it's not enough to keep the road from flooding.  But everybody wears their rubber boots all the time anyway. So if you come to a pool in the road you can just splash your way through it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

McNutt's Geography: Forest Map, 1912

This 1912 map, Forest Distribution in Nova Scotia, is from the Commission of Conservation Canada. We inherited it with the house. According to the map's legend, McNutt's Island is categorized as Not examined. That's why you see it here as a blank white space of outlined island. 
If it had been examined it would probably be pink (for farms) along the western edges and in the northern part, golden (for barrens) along the southern cape, and dotted green (for culled coniferous forest) everywhere else.  But, instead, no forestry expert got in a boat and came over here to look.  

This question of forest types is vexing, but only because I wish for some neat category in which to place the island. I have read that Nova Scotia's forests as a whole are considered part of the Acadian Forest. But the description of the Boreal Forest seems to fit McNutt's better: where black spruce and hackmatack (tamarack) dominate, growing on saturated, acidic soils.  Or perhaps it is mostly Forested Sphagnum Bog.

I wonder how island conditions -- the fog and the rain and the wind and the waves -- affect this particular forest.  Trees along the shore have toppled because the waves have washed away the bank where they sat. The few spruce near the lighthouse, which is so wind-swept, are small and twisted like those of an old Japanese print. The wind blows off the sea and across the island in mighty gusts and gales that have the power to uproot enormous spruce and flatten entire forest patches. The same wind has carved the big yellow birch tree into the old wrinkled creature you see today.   

The forest is not all spruce and hackmatack. It has paper birch, alder, quaking aspen and maple. Various small hardwoods I do not yet know.  Near the government wharf the road travels through a forest of paper birches. It is ghostly until the summer, when it becomes enchanted. In spring the pink and white blossoms of serviceberry and wild cherry and rhodora emerge briefly, then disappear. When the blossoms have finished the trees subside into vague anonymity, nothing special anymore. There are wild hollies, with red berries.  And apple trees, planted by old settlers or by birds or by wind.     

This Forest Map tells me nothing about what kind of forest is here. It just sends me outside, to look around and see for myself. What kind of a map is that, I wonder.       

Sunday, May 3, 2009

New Jerusalem Farm

If Alexander McNutt's ghost were ever to wander along the lower road, he would surely stop to admire our new sign. It honours the old schemer and con-artist -- or perhaps visionary and dreamer -- nobody really knows for sure. He did intend, or so he told the Lords of Trade in London in 1761, to make a utopian community at Port Roseway for Ulster Irish. He named his imaginary community New Jerusalem. Maybe he meant it and maybe he didn't. Maybe a settlement of sorts happened here before the Loyalist tsunami, and maybe it didn't. Anyway, he lived at his brother Benjamin's place up the road from here for many years before he skedaddled to Virginia. So we remember him.

Greg made this sign as my Christmas present, but he only put it up last week. We didn't think we needed a sign during the winter, when there are no visitors along the lower road. 
According to our sign, New Jerusalem is the place where deer and lamb lie down together, where the trees are filled with apples and the seal pokes his head out of the waves and the little red boat always runs quite nicely. It's maybe another sort of utopian dream, but one Alexander might recognize.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Island bird report

The air is getting crowded around McNutt's Island as seasonal birds make landing and year-round birds grow more lively.  Here's a report of the past week's highlights.  I'll only add pictures of birds I haven't shown in earlier posts. 

Greg first noted the Double-crested Cormorants on the Horseshoe as he made a harbour crossing on April 14th. On April 25th we watched one standing on a dock in the cove. He spread his imposing Gothic wings and held them wide for a long time. It was definitely an "Aren't I the prettiest thing you ever saw?" kind of pose. As I saw no lady Cormorants in the vicinity I guess he was showing off for the universe. The local name for the Cormorant is Shag. As in Shag Harbour, just down the coast. 

The Osprey have been quite active, wheeling across the sky with their incongruous little chirp, chirp. On the afternoon of April 28th we watched an Osprey hovering high above the cove, his head craned downward, searching with his keen eyes. Three times he folded his huge wings against his body and transformed himself into a hurtling bolt of doom for some poor fish.Twice he came up empty-taloned, but the third time he flew off with take-out for the missus, chirping exultantly. 

We see the Great Blue Heron every day. Our house is on their flight pattern, so as we are working outside we hear their distinctive cry and look up to watch them glide across the sky. We often see them flying in a pair, which means it's mating time. The sound of the Great Blue Heron is a harsh rusty metallic squawk. I think they are saying "I love you" to each other as they fly past.  In their own way, of course.  

The Common Loon remains in the harbour during the winter, but I think it is silent during that season. Now we hear it regularly, both day and night. At 2:30 this morning a loon woke me up with its haunting, beautiful call, which went on and on. 

A Northern Flicker is still on the island. We have watched him pecking the ground along the stone walls, and I saw him on the main road, about half way to the lighthouse, on April 24th. 

We first saw the Purple Finch on April 19th. I saw three males in an apple tree on April 25th, and one near the bird seed on April 29th.   Roger Tory Peterson said it looks like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice. They apparently like to nest in spruce trees, and we have a few they can choose from.

On April 26th I watched two Ravens performing a spectacular synchronized air show. Their every move was in tandem. We have recently heard them making a fuss in the Skeleton Forest, either attacking something or defending something. Now that I have been able to watch and listen to them I am learning to distinguish them from the Crows. We have both.  

We identified a Red-winged Blackbird on April 29th. Although they could be over-wintering birds, we have not seen any until now. 

Greg met up with a Myrtle Warbler on April 29th. We also saw one of these birds during the winter, up in the spruce forest toward the middle of the island. Myrtle Warblers love bayberries and we will have plenty of them along the shore.  But there will be other varieties of Warblers here during the summer too, and we will only catch a glimpse of their bright yellow markings as they zoom through the bog or twitter among the bayberry thickets near the shore.  

As far as we know the Indigo Bunting is still here, though elusive. We most recently saw him on April 26th eating bird seed. The ranks of the Robins have swelled to about twice their winter population.  The Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are mainstays, too. And our dear friends the White Throated Sparrows are in full voice from dawn to dusk. What a joy.

Bird images are from Robie Tuft's Birds of Nova Scotia, courtesy of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. I use the Cornell University All About Birds web site for additional information.