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, June 30, 2009

A visit to the Horseshoe

The Horseshoe is a curved rock barrier that forms the northern arm of the island's western cove. On the late eighteenth century maps of the island it is named Carolina Beach.

You can easily see the Horseshoe when you arrive by boat from the mainland to the government wharf, as you will pass right by it. But getting there is another matter.

Take the path from the government wharf that leads east, toward the old McNutt cellar. Stay on the path, which has been recently cleared of fallen trees by the heroic McNutt's Island Road Crew, and so is spectacularly accessible. Eventually you go through an eerie stand of spruce, where the light barely filters in and you can glimpse the deep waters of the eastern channel on your right. Then you will come upon a kind of raggedy marsh, where a small flock of introverted sheep is usually grazing. They will run like mad and hide in the woods the minute they see you.
Cross the marsh toward the rock barrier and soon you'll find yourself walking along the Horsehoe. The barrier has two places where the rocks decline below the high tide level. So your trip out to the end of it and back needs to be well timed unless you don't mind wading through a fast rising tide on your return, or being marooned.

As you walk toward the Horseshoe you can see Sandy Point Lighthouse to the north, across Shelburne Harbour. Sandy Point Light was built in 1873 to guide ships into the inner harbour as they approached from the eastern channel. Honestly, this old fashioned lobster trap is exactly where we found it.
We were surprised to find a small low-growing pink flower in such a harsh environment.
Out at the end of the Horseshoe is a water-filled depression encircled and hidden by the rock barrier. It has a lot of algae in it this time of year and is likely formed by rainwater and by the wash of waves at high tide. A row of gulls stood guard along the ridge of this watery place and watched warily as we made our approach. You can see the outlines of Grey Island behind them. Beyond Grey Island lies the vast Atlantic.
The gulls nest here, along the edge of this depression, which can't be seen at all from the harbour. They probably chose this remote place long ago because they like their privacy. In fact they aren't visited very often during the nesting season, and their few visitors are very respectful. When we went out last week the baby gulls had already grown up into gawky adolescents, almost full size but not yet able to fly. They scrambled to the shore and into the water, where they floated, waiting out our intrusion.
Meanwhile the adults flew overhead to intimidate us. Which they did.

Monday, June 29, 2009

When seals play games

The Harbour Seals were singing while I rowed in the cove this morning. I think fog inspires them to heights of sealish melody. I rowed toward Indian Point, where they often loll about on some exposed rocks at low tide. I decided to creep up on them by rowing backward - by which I mean my stern was going forward, which is backward, if you get my drift. It is an awkward way to row, but it let me face them as I approached.

Now and then I stopped rowing entirely and drifted, all the time coming closer and closer, ever so stealthily. I was quite proud of how well I was sneaking up on them, until they slid off their rocks and disappeared beneath the water. They had been watching me the whole time, I guess.

I changed my strategy then. I rowed boldly into the wide cove above Indian Point and rested my oars and sat. Dark heads began to emerge from beneath the water to look at me. I counted eight. It's a curious experience to wait for seals to show themselves. If they want, they will let you see them. Also if they want, they can look at you without being seen. They can come up, look you over, and disappear again all without your knowing it, even if you are sitting right in the middle of them. Several times I heard a splash close behind me and turned as fast as I could, to see nothing but leftover ripples and a few air bubbles. It felt like a game of hide and seek, or maybe blind man's bluff. Whatever the game was, they had the home advantage.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Looking at Starfish

We spied Starfish near the government wharf yesterday. I went beneath the wharf to see if I could find more. According to The Natural History of Nova Scotia they live in the middle zone of rocky shore habitat, where they feed on barnacles and periwinkles.
Even on this foggy day the moving water is filled with light. The particular beauty of each stone is revealed as it absorbs and reflects the sky. The Starfish are luminous, as if they contained a tiny bit of celestial starlight though their home is here, in this hidden place between the tides.
The light-filled Starfish make me think of the Quakers' practice of holding someone in the Light. It is a kind of wordless prayer for another. I wonder if this is the secret task of the Starfish: to hold the galaxies in the Light.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Foggy garden

It has been a long slow spring in the garden. I guess this is a typical spring for gardens along the southwest shore of Nova Scotia. After all, it is the Atlantic Ocean we are on the edge of: a force of nature there's no point going up against. We have had more days of rain than not. Plenty of those rains have been deluges, the kind where you lie in bed at night listening to the rain pouring out of the sky and thinking about those little seeds all being washed away to Kingdom Come. Then you wait until the soil has drained enough to plant again.

The soil has warmed, gradually and slowly, but we have not yet had many brilliantly bright days. They will come, but not until August and September, I think. In summer this is a cool and foggy place. I'm not complaining about that. It's truly lovely. It just means you need to think about the garden a bit differently.

So now, at the end of June, the mustard greens have been doing well for a couple of weeks. We've been eating them in salads. They have a terrific peppery bite to them, and they are cut-and-come-again, perfect for a lazy gardener. The mesclun is ready for cutting, too. The peas are finally flowering and I will probably begin to pick them in a few days.
A few more days of sunlight would move things along, but the weather forecast is for more rain and cloud. "He's giving rain," is how folks around here put it. But they don't seem to get too exercised about what he may or may not be giving or withholding. They have made peace with his capricious ways.
This year I have learned that the number of days from germination to harvest listed on the seed packet is the number of days in some ideal world that contains the exactly correct proportions of water, warmth and sunlight. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just that it doesn't tell you much about your very own garden in its very own situation. And it's a set-up for frustration. That often happens when you measure reality against an ideal world, I think.
The garden is teaching me to let go of my expectations and soak up the reality. This foggy patch of soil is a thing of beauty, to me anyway. It's filled now with slowly growing beans and beets and turnips and chard, peppers and leeks, parsnips and shallots and cabbages and squash. There are eight fish bait boxes of lazy bed potatoes that are overflowing with luxurious green leaves. And yesterday I found a tiny new toad at the end of a row of turnips.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raking muck

If you are raking muck then I guess you are a muckraker. So that's what Greg is these days. His original project -- to clear the bog below our house of dead spruce trees and other unappealing stuff -- has morphed into recovering a pond he found hidden down there. This morphing process often happens with Greg's projects.
Greg finds potential where most of us would just see a bog.
To clear the pond he stands in it with his heavy rake and lifts out whatever he finds, which is mostly branches and muck. So far he has not turned up any ancient bog people.

The toads are cheering him on. They sit on the banks and trill and imagine that soon they'll have a watery home worthy of their collective dignity.
While Greg clears the pond, the three rams lounge about in the lower orchard and keep an eye on his progress. They themselves have undertaken no summer projects at all, but they do admire industriousness when they see it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Gill netting in the cove

We've been curious about the gill net that Skipper and his sons sometimes set in the cove during the summer. We have been the beneficiaries of their occasional harvests of pollack, herring and mackerel. But we haven't had a clue how that harvest actually happens.

Last week Skipper said he thought he'd leave the net in place instead of taking it down and then setting it again. So far they hadn't caught a single fish in it. There just hadn't been any fish in the cove yet this summer, he guessed.

But the net needs to be checked every day or so. If fish are caught in it, and stay caught for too long, the seals will get to them. So, Skipper said, we could row over and check it and take out whatever fish were caught in it. "It's easy," he said. "You just row along the net and pull it up as you go and you'll find the fish, if there are any."

So yesterday we rowed out to the gill net. It's about one and a half meters wide and thirty meters long, and it's anchored between two buoys. Along the top of the net, small black plastic floats keep it buoyed on the surface of the water.

Greg rowed up close and I started pulling up the net. At first I didn't have a clue what I was doing. But gradually I got the hang of it. You need to gather the net in one hand and move along it with the other.

Then with your third and fourth hands you can easily grasp the wiggling slippery fish who is quite understandably eager to escape from you. You push the fish through the net -- don't even think about trying to pull it out in the other direction. That's why it's called a gill net.

And then with your fifth and sixth hands you can easily hold onto it and deposit it into the bucket. Be sure not to let the net get tangled up as you do this. It may catch on some little part of your rowboat that you never noticed before.

I don't know how one person would do all this and row at the same time. And you do need to row, or else your boat will drift away from the net while you are doing all these other things. But then I am not Skipper or his son Garrett, for whom this is an easy little thing to do.

It was exciting to see the fish shining below us in the water, caught in the net. I have never had much to do with live fish, except for the goldfish we used to have in various garden ponds. So I was a little nervous about grasping one and extricating it from the net. But once I saw that it wasn't going to bite me I felt more confident.

We put the fish in a bucket that unfortunately was filled with rainwater, not seawater. They didn't care for it much. Next time we will do better.

We rowed home again and Greg went to work to identify our catch. We thought it was mackerel, but Skipper told us later it was gaspereau. Last night we had whole gaspereau, baked, with garlic, rosemary, chives, olive oil, and a little salt and pepper.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More about the privateers' attack on the island

The American privateers who ransacked Benjamin and Alexander McNutt's house were part of a pattern.

In the years before the Revolution, settlers had moved from the fishing towns of Massachusetts to this Nova Scotian shore, the opposite shore of their own familiar cod fishing grounds. During the Revolution these settlers -- their roots in New England -- were often supporters of the colonies or maintained a kind of practical evenhandedness between support of the rebels and of the crown. To tell the truth, these Yankee fishermen, now of Yarmouth and Cape Sable and Barrington and Port Roseway and Liverpool, were not trusted by either the Americans or the British.

The American privateers looted and terrorized up and down the coast to disrupt the British in any way they could. Once war was declared no legal trade was allowed between the Americans and the Nova Scotians. Cut off from their means of income -- the trade of fish --and further robbed by privateers of their boats and their food supplies, the settlers sank into poverty and distress.

The attack of privateers on the island came on June 22, 1778. The energetic and aggrieved Alexander wasted no time taking his complaint to the Massachusetts Bay Council and appeared there less than two months later, on August 17th. In the meantime he had done his own investigation. The privateer, McNutt told the council that day, was the armed schooner Congress, out of Boston, its scurrilous captain Thomas Francis -- even more of an insult, a Welchman!

It had been a trial to get to Boston from Port Roseway to seek justice, and McNutt wanted the council to hear about it: his passage on an English frigate interrupted when the vessel was chased onto shore by two tenders, then hitching a ride on board a whale boat to Falmouth, and from there to Boston by land "on foot, having been deprived of the means of travelling more agreeably by the aforesaid robbers." The privateers were nothing but armed ruffians, he says. I have to say, McNutt was impressive in his first appearance before the council: grand, insulted, demanding.

Eleven months later McNutt appears before the council again. Now he tells them how he went to the Boston house of the ship's owner, Mr. Oliver, determined to get back the stolen goods. Probably Mr. Oliver professed to be shocked, shocked, at McNutt's story. Together they had gone to the privateer captain's house and searched it, and found some of McNutt's things, "marked with my name," he adds. Oliver had promised McNutt that he would take care of the stolen possessions they had found, and do whatever he could to find the rest.

But Oliver was perfidious. Captain Francis managed to sail away to South Carolina. He took with him everything that belonged to McNutt. What would have happened to all those pretty treasures after that? Sold down south, I imagine, as spoils of war. I wonder if a silver spoon that once lay upon the table at Roseneath Island now rests in some Charleston museum.

The McNutts may have been targeted by the privateers because of their reputed wealth and because the island was easy pickings. But they were not the only victims in the Port Roseway vicinity. In the fall of 1779 Alexander McNutt passed on to the council a petition from several settlers on nearby Ragged Islands, in Jordan Bay, a few miles east of his home on Roseneath Island. His initial swagger is gone by now, or else he has become so familiar to the council that he no longer feels the need to impress them.

The inhabitants of Ragged Islands had suffered a similar attack, and lost boats, cod fish, "four barrels of salt, three salmon nets, sixty pounds of butter, one green hide, five dressed skins and some cheese, and a great many other things." The settlers added: "These things are very surprising that we in this harbour that have done so much for America, that have helped three or four hundred prisoners up along to America and have given part of our living to them, and have concealed privateers and prizes too from the British cruisers, in this Harbor. "

McNutt's last recorded appearance before the council was in June of 1780. It had been nearly two years since the privateer attack. McNutt seems to have given up on the possibility of any redress for his own losses. Now he asks instead for help for fourteen families in Port Roseway -- living near him, he says, in extreme poverty. In response the council allows McNutt to export for their benefit sixty bushels of grain, one hogshead of molasses, one barrel of rum, one loaf of sugar, and "several small articles of crockery such as milkpans, porringers and butter pots" -- a sad little list of things.

It could be that these fourteen families, for whom McNutt felt some responsibility, were the citizens of New Jerusalem. I hope they got their grain and their rum and their butter pots. But we don't really know whether they did or not.

Detail of Captain Holland's New Navigational Chart, 1798, courtesy of NSARM. McNutt's appearances before the Massachusetts Council can be found in Annals of Yarmouth and Barrington Nova Scotia in the Revolutionary War, compiled from original manuscripts, etc., by Edmund Duval Poole, Yarmouth NS, reprinted from the Yarmouth Herald, 1899. You can read an overview of this era of privateering in Roger Marsters' Bold Privateers: Terror, Plunder and Profit on Canada's Atlantic Coast ( Halifax, Formac Publishing Co Ltd, 2004), pp. 85- 96.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Quiet island corral

For two days each year the sheep corral is filled with ewes and lambs and shepherds and intense activity. But the rest of the time it is empty. Sometimes a solitary mink glides across the grass in search of prey. The eagle sits on the opposite cove shore and eyes the water. The corral is part of the cove's landscape. When the shepherds have faded into a vague memory again, the sheep wander past these fences as they will. They act as if this place belongs to them.

After they have been gathered from all around the island -- an arduous task that takes many hours -- the ewes and their lambs will be brought into this large fenced meadow. It's a sort of waiting room for them.
The corral is made up of permanent fencing along the perimeter, and a combination of permanent fences and moveable doors, gates and partitions within it.
The buttercups have been corralled in an area that will be filled with lambs in a few weeks, when they are gathered for de-worming and tail docking.
A narrowing passage allows the shepherds to funnel lambs from the wide fenced meadow into the buttercup paddock.
This same narrow passage funnels the ewes, one at a time, toward the shearing platform. After the ewes have been sheared they will run through the wider passage, shown on the left, back to the big fenced meadow. There they will mill about, feeling unaccountably lighter.

The shearing platform is to the right in this photograph. Fence sections are put up and taken down as the need arises. The shepherds will bring over a generator for the shearing, and set it up inside this area.
In October the shepherds gather the flock for the second time. On this trip they will cull the lambs. The lambs will move down a fenced chute here, defined by these posts, into a waiting boat that will ferry them to the mainland.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A visit to the McNutt cellar, part three

When we moved to our house we found this letter from Harriet and Basil Heanssler to Elizabeth Hyde. It was tucked inside an old desk in the back bedroom.

Later we moved the desk to the fish house, which Greg restored as a little one-room cottage for summer guests. But we left the letter inside the desk as a memento.
When they wrote this letter, in summer of 1991, the Heansslers had owned the Benjamin McNutt property for two decades. They had bought it from Louie Hemeon, whose family had owned it since 1941. The property is still known locally as Louie's, or, as the Heansslers called it in their letter, "the old Hemeon house."

For some reason the Heansslers had not taken care of the house and it had become a danger. But when they wrote to Elizabeth, she was suffering from the brain tumour that would eventually claim her life. By then it was too late for Elizabeth to help. The house was destroyed in a controlled burn sometime in late 1991 or early 1992. Pat Randall noted in her historic property inventory of September 1992 that the house was gone.

But is it a tragedy, the loss of Benjamin McNutt's house, locally known as Louie's? When I was younger I would have thought so. But now I think, well, it was old and neglected, falling down and unsafe. Its destruction was just the final step in a long process of decay.

Click on the Heanssler's letter to enlarge it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

a wild orchid on midsummer's eve

Today we saw our first Nova Scotia wild orchid, Dragon's Mouth.
We had gone exploring in a place we had never been before. It's a place where nobody goes, except during deer hunting season. Greg noticed a bright colour glimmering well beyond the path.
When we looked more closely this is what we found, in the middle of an open sphagnum bog.
After Dragon's Mouth is finished blooming it will look like nothing but a stalk of slender grass in the bog moss -- something I would never notice. So it was quite magical that we saw it today.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A visit to the McNutt cellar, part two

The ownership of the property passed through several families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the second half of the nineteenth century it was owned by members of the Muir family, a substantial Shelburne family of merchants and shipbuilders who kept a farm on the island.
In the first part of the twentieth century, from about 1911 until about 1941, a fish plant on the property provided work for the women of the island, whose wages helped their families' meager incomes. After the Second World War the house may not have been used or occupied any longer. By then nearly all the inhabitants had left the island, except the lightkeeper families.
In 1991 and 1992 Pat Randall used site inventory forms created by the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture to compile an inventory of the historic structures still existing on the island. She used wills and deeds to trace the conveyance of these buildings, and she interviewed people who knew about the island's past.

When we first visited Shelburne in the fall of 2006, I went to the municipality building to see what I could learn about the history of the old house we thought we might buy. Somebody there handed me a three-ring binder. As I looked through the binder I realized there was a lot of great information about the island's past. They let me photocopy as much material as I wanted.

Somebody in that office told me that Pat Randall had lived in Shelburne for a while and been very interested in documenting the historic buildings on McNutt's and around the municipality and so had made it her project. I don't know where she is today, but we are lucky that she did all this work. It can be so easy to let knowledge of these old places slip away.

There are probably other photographs and memories about this fascinating old place, still waiting to be collected and shared. This is when living on an island has its drawbacks. Online research is easy to do, but actually visiting people and hearing their stories is a more difficult. Eventually I will do it, though.

Soon I will write about how the house came to an end.

The black and white photograph, courtesy of Jean Williams, is attached to the inventory documented by Pat Randall in 1992 for the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture, and available at the Municipality of Shelburne.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A visit to the McNutt cellar, part one

From the government wharf it's only a few minutes' walk along a path toward the east before you arrive at the cellar of an old house.
Its floor is crowded with trees and other growth. You can see an enormous boulder in the lower right of the next photo. That's the central hearth foundation.
The cellar's size and depth mark it as once having been the foundation of the island's most substantial house. This is what remains of the McNutts' presence on the island.
This house was built on 250 acres granted to Benjamin McNutt c. 1765. The DesBarres map of Port Campbell, executed in 1765, gives us good evidence of the McNutt presence on the island by that date. The McNutt lands are shaded light blue, and structures are noted. Benjamin built a house, cleared land, and established a farm here. He died in 1798, probably in his house on the island. He bequeathed his property to Martin McNutt, a relative and a local cooper.
Benjamin was the brother of Alexander McNutt (1725-1811), an Irish land agent active in Nova Scotia between 1761 and 1796. After their forcible deportation of the Acadians, which began in 1755, the British government needed new settlers for Nova Scotia. Alexander McNutt proposed large settlements of Ulster Irish here. Among his plans was a utopian community at Port Roseway Harbour (now Shelburne Harbour), to be called New Jerusalem.

McNutt's grand plans ended in failure. But as a part of his plan for Port Roseway, his brother Benjamin received this property on what was then called Roseneath Island. As Alexander's province-wide dreams faded, he came here to live.

During the American Revolution, American privateers attacked settlements on Nova Scotia's southwest coast. In 1778 a company of these privateers landed on the island and ransacked the McNutt house. Alexander McNutt travelled to Boston to complain to the Massachusetts Bay Council about the attack. In his complaint he described the loss of his sword, pistol and firelocks, scarlet and blue cloth, drawing box, books, silver spoons, silver buckles, gold lace and diamond rings. So we know he was living on the island at the time of the privateers' attack.

Tomorrow's post will talk about what happened to the house in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and how we know what we know about it (and how we wish we knew more).

Detail of the DesBarres map of Port Campbell now Shelburne, 1765, courtesy of NSARM.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cow Parsnip at Indian Point

While wandering about at Indian Point I came upon a stand of Cow Parsnip along the edge of the marsh.
It's a beautiful plant: very tall, with wide leaves and a flat umbrella-like cluster of white flowers, like Queen Anne's Lace.
I guess the sheep and deer don't care for it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

harvesting rockweed

Rockweed grows along the shore of the island's western cove. Rockweed is inter-tidal. It grows on the boulders that line the cove, gripping the rocks' hard surface with its holdfasts. It lives in the sea, but then twice a day the sea ebbs away from its home. Then its environment changes, and it lies along the shore exposed to direct sunlight and air. The rising tide will lift it up and set it to swaying back and forth again for several hours. It does well in the coves and harbours along the southwest Nova Scotia coast.
Rockweed is harvested by hand, using a rake that prunes the plant without damaging its holdfast. The harvesters stand in their wide, deep boats, cutting and lifting the Rockweed in one continuous motion. It takes several hours to fill a boat. Raymond Symonds, the harvester I met yesterday, said he would have 10,000 to 12,000 pounds in his boat by the time he had finished for the day. A boat filled with Rockweed rides very low in the water and must be navigated carefully back to the dock to be unloaded.
Raymond was kind enough to visit with me for a while as he filled his boat. He is from nearby, from around Barrington. He has been harvesting Rockweed and Irish Moss since he was fourteen years old. He goes lobstering until the end of May when the lobster season ends. After the lobster season he harvests Rockweed.

"It's not hard," he told me. But it looks hard, standing in your boat, braced against the rocking of the waves, reaching down into the water and cutting the Rockweed and lifting it up and flipping it from the rake into the bottom of the boat, without losing your balance, over and over and over again. It is a beautiful sight to watch, though, like something from an earlier time.

Rockweed has an intrinsic value in the marine environment, providing a refuge and a nursery for any manner of marine life. This 1996 article from Fundy Notes describes how Rockweed flourishes in its challenging environment and contributes to it, and raises questions about the long-term effect of harvesting this "maritime treasure."

Acadian Seaplants now has the contract for all Rockweed harvesting along the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. The Acadian Seaplants web site explains the company's approach to sustainable harvesting, and also tells you how Rockweed is used in products manufactured all over the world. The harvesting of Rockweed and other seaweeds is important to the economy of southwestern Nova Scotia, and Acadian Seaplants is proud of its research-based good practices.