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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gathering rosehips

The forager learns that an awkward path can lead toward gladness. To find wild raspberries you will clamber over fallen spruce trunks while their sharp spiky branches ward you away and the bees await to mount a final defense. To collect chanterelles you will squat or kneel along the roadside, or lie upon the earth in some forest glade, crawling on your belly beneath low spruce branches. To harvest cranberries you will creep through the bog, your rubber boots squishing as you pull each foot out of the mire, carefully, so as not to end up leaving your boot behind.

On the other hand, to gather rosehips you can just jump on the ATV and travel far and wide to reach the biggest of the wild rose bushes you have noticed from time to time. The bushes themselves are not hard to get to. Beginning this adventure is easy.
But once you are standing in front of a rosebush, you will need to consider. There are thorns. You will be able to avoid the obvious thorns, the big ones. But there are also tiny thorns too small to notice. Those you learn about more directly, by feeling them. You will pay a miniscule amount for your rosehips, only a drop or two of blood.
The best rosehips will always be beyond your reach -- way up high, or nestled deep within a crisscrossing of branches. Those are there only for you to look at and admire. The birds -- more adept at these kinds of things -- will gather them, not you. Later, the memory of collecting rosehips will remain with you, in your fingers, at the places where tiny thorns are embedded.

Each adventure in foraging has its own joy, its own brief intimacy with the island's secret places. But always there is the joy of colour. Raspberries glow like jewels -- amethysts, or rubies. The chanterelles are apricot gold that gleams fitfully among dark spruce needles and green moss and earth. Cranberries are pink mottled with pale yellow, then damson or grape and slowly emerging crimson. Rosehips do not gleam or glow. Instead they shine as bright as autumn fire.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cranberry foraging

We thought there might be wild cranberries in a bog near the eastern channel. So on Sunday we went foraging.
We were thrilled to realize that they grew on the island. Carla Allen says that there are wild cranberries in bogs all over southwest Nova Scotia, just waiting for people to come and harvest them. So maybe this is an ordinary Sunday afternoon activity around here. But it's a first for us.
The bog is actually trembly in a few places. You can stand on a little mossy hummocky island and wiggle it back and forth -- an odd experience.
The bog was luminous with glistening water and light. Red squirrels chattered in the forest nearby, and waves pounded the rocks of Cape Roseway and the entrance to the eastern channel. Those were the only sounds.
The northern pitcher plant grows abundantly here. Its basal leaves are cranberry red.
Its tall stem and flower have dried.
We found cranberries everywhere, a few at a time. We never really came upon an extensive patch. We had to look closely to find them. They seem more purple than red at first, so they don't stand out.
A northern pitcher plant waiting for a fly. There were little flies in the bog, looking for northern pitcher plants to drown themselves in. I'm sure they got together. There were also small grasshoppers and water spiders.
There's something deeply satisfying about looking for wild food.
In a couple of hours of foraging we collected about three and a half pounds of cranberries.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Island desperadoes

When Leroy D'Entremont, the owner of the sheep, made the gathering last month, he was pretty sure he had missed a few at the northern end of the island. Those northern sheep have their own collective mentality which they somehow pass on, from generation to generation. They think of themselves as outsiders. They are elusive, shy and suspicious. It was up there that a ewe panicked and swam out into the harbour and drowned. Leroy thought that some of those northern lambs had evaded the gathering and so not gotten their tails docked with all the rest.The other day there were two lambs and a ewe out in the side yard. It's very odd to see only three sheep. We nearly always see them in bigger groups than that. When the lambs got up to graze we could see that they both had long tails. Their tails speak volumes, dangling proof that they ran away and hid in the woods to escape the gathering. They are, by the looks of it, from the north. The ewe is one of them, too. She is known by the company she keeps.
The shepherds really have no end of trouble with sheep who are bad flockers.
They look innocent enough, but they are a bad influence on the others.
A year ago Leroy had to struggle to catch the lamb we later named Cassandra. He tied her to a tree until he could come back to get her. Some well-meaning strangers came by and untied her, and she ran off and never did get her tail docked. She turned out to be a trouble-maker, a fear-monger, always sowing dark rumours among the flock. Now we have two more who obviously demonstrate the same outsider mentality.
On Friday there were fifteen contented sheep around the house, but these three were not among them. By yesterday the others had moved on to graze elsewhere, and the trio from the north arrived.

Through the wonders of modern technology, I can send the d'Entremonts pictures: lambs caught in the act of having tails. At last our spying on sheep is useful.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pushing ahead very rapidly in 1904

Thanks to Kim Walker, Archivist at the Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society, for sharing this article.

Friday, October 23, 2009

New perspective

Sometimes it helps to go away from a place so you can see it more clearly. I had been wanting to search the local archives in the Town of Shelburne for information about McNutt's Island. I was looking for material I couldn't get online.
And it worked out that I could spend a few days there this week. I visited the resource centre at the Shelburne County Museum, on Dock Street. I picked up some leads and hope to return next week for more poking around.
While I was at the resource centre I met people who were at work on very interesting things. Susan Gilson and Philip Neville were in town filming interviews for a Council of Nova Scotia Archives project called Routes to Your Roots. They chatted with Jeannie Peterson, a volunteer, and with Finn Bower, who is the museum's Curator. (Left to right: Finn, Jeannie, Philip, Susan.)
I saw a bunch of pigeons on top of the cooperage on Dock Street. I spent a terrific day at the Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society, too. I'll write more about that visit next week.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Northern Flicker, seen through a storm window on a rainy day

We have been seeing Northern Flickers around lately, along with one Blue Jay who is their buddy. They are big birds, and pretty spectacular. Yesterday a couple of them staked out the back yard to grub for grubs, worms, insects --whatever they find there. That's why they have those fabulous curved beaks.
Unlike most woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker prefers the bounty of the ground to that of the tree trunk.
They winter in Nova Scotia, and once last winter I saw one of them along the main road, in the island's forested interior. Some Northern Flickers visited for a few days last spring, then we didn't see them again until the past week or so.
Maybe they will decide to stay over on the island this winter.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

McNutts geography: James Park map of 1785

This map by James Park is dated 1785, only two years after the first Loyalists arrived at Port Roseway. It's a military map made by an engineer in the royal navy; its primary purpose is navigational. The Town of Shelburne is shown on the far left of the page, deep inside the inner harbour. This map makes quite clear the importance of the large island sitting at the entrance of Port Roseway Harbour, as it was then called. Ships need to enter through the eastern way. The west side of the island is a bit of a backwater, accessible only to local traffic, rowboats and small shallops, perhaps, or accessible to bigger vessels only on the high tide.
Note the pilot settlement at Carleton Point (later called Fort Point). By 1785 Carleton/Fort Point was the location of the British fort, indicated by a square. The island is not named, but Mr. Nutt's settlement is designated along its northeastern side.

Map courtesy of NSARM.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Weather report

Yesterday and the day before were cold, with burly winds coming from the southwest, out of the North Atlantic, crossing the harbour and banging up against the house. Today the wind has swirled around and is coming at the house from the northeast. The wind is hurling rain against the old wavy panes of glass in the east windows, and the wood stove keeps us cozy indoors. These winds will get stronger as the fall veers toward winter. Right now they are only a reminder of last winter and a foretaste of the season to come.

I had delayed putting on the storm windows, hoping for a few more days of golden mildness. I was being a bit of a grasshopper, never having really learned that particular lesson. So I waited too long, and putting them up this week has been more of a chore than it needed to be. I doubt that I've internalized this particular moral, and will probably find myself in the same situation again next fall.

While I should have been putting up storm windows I fiddled around in the wildflower garden instead. I moved in some ox-eye daisies and lupines and lilies, and moved some of the forget-me-nots -- an amazing little plant that continues to blossom until frost, as long as you keep cutting it back, I've discovered. The tiny wildflower garden looks good now, all ready for its winter sleep. It is not at all useful though, only beautiful in a homely sort of way.

But there is much around here that is useful, or potentially so. And toward that much we are like ants -- or squirrels -- these days. I'm hulling the walnuts from our two trees, which leaves the actual squirrels bereft except for the nuts way up in the tops of the trees that we can't dislodge. The best way to get the walnuts is to stand underneath a branch with your gaff, hook the gaff over the branch, and shake. Just don't look up at the same time, and do remember to cover your head, or duck or something. We collected a huge plastic laundry basket of walnuts in their bright green hulls, while the red squirrels chattered at us from neighbouring spruce trees, and flung furious looks our way.

After you've collected the walnuts, the next step is to get the hulls off. To do that you need to wear those latex gloves, or else your hands will be stained with tannin for a few weeks. The hulls come off easily, mostly. Then the walnuts in their shells need to air-dry for several weeks. I put them on an old screen window laid between two chairs. After that comes the shelling. The whole process is time-consuming, but it's as good a way to spend time as most others I can think of. And in the end you have walnuts. Last year we got three pounds. I expect this year it will be about the same, from the looks of it.

Meanwhile, Greg is freezing herbs from the garden, saving the coriander seeds from the cilantro, making pesto from the parsley and marjoram, baking zucchini pie and zucchini brownies for the freezer, and stewing the last of the tomatoes.

We are not the only ones, of course. All up and down the southwest coast of Nova Scotia people are doing variations on the same thing. It's that time of year, when resourceful people get themselves ready for winter.

Down in the Acadian heartland of the Pubnico villages, Mary d'Entremont has been making sausage from the mutton of the ewes they culled a few weeks ago from their island flocks, including this one. Mutton is a wonderful meat, but it's also sometimes a little challenging for the cook. Mary's sausage is the perfect use of mutton. It's delicious. If you live close enough to pick some up, you could email her at They have free-range chickens for sale, too, if they have any left. And of course the lamb, when it's ready.

Along the roads into town you can see freshly painted lobster buoys piled in front yards, a sign that the lobstermen are getting ready for Opening Day, at the end of November. There's a public quality to how well a household functions around here. Your laundry flaps on the line for all to see, the size and condition of your woodpile is known to the most casual passer-by, and everybody recognizes if you have gotten your lobster buoys repainted yet, or not.

The second image is the cover of a booklet entitled The Family Food Supply, published in 1934 and distributed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Canadian Head Office, Ottawa. We found this booklet in the house when we moved in. It was probably consulted by Bertha Goulden, who was in charge of the family food supply in those days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Old apples

The old apples were planted here between seventy five and hundred and fifty years ago. Some of them may be wild, but most of the trees look like they were grown from grafts, and most are planted in patterns. We haven't identified many, but we have an idea about general types.

We have Gravenstein, Alexander, and several kinds of Greening apples. Maybe we have a Dudley Winter or North Star, a Newtown Pippin, and an Ashmead's Kernel. Almost certainly we have a Golden Russet and a Maiden's Blush. And maybe -- just maybe -- we have a Cox's Orange Pippin, though it may be wishful thinking.

Lacking their real names, we make up names for them anyway: Fish House, Short Cut, Three Sisters.

If I pay enough attention to these apples -- their shapes and sizes, their stems, their lenticels, their streaks, their russetting and all the other wonderful aspects of apples that I never knew a thing about before last fall, I will come to know them over the years, even if I don't learn their names.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making cider

Cider making day. Actually, we began on Sunday, but we finished up today. Here's the complete rig. It's a Correll Cider Press. Hand-crafted, beautiful, and simple to operate. We love it. Greg is dropping apples into a motorized hopper.

The apples will be chopped into bits in there and the apple bits will drop into a filter bag inside the slatted wooden basket which is positioned below.
The hopper sits on top of the shredding chamber. You drop the apples into the hopper and they fall down a sort of chute into the shredder.
After the basket is filled, you slide it toward the end of the base. There's a wooden press lid that fits into the top of the basket. After everything is in position, you begin to turn the press screw. The wooden lid then gradually presses down on the apple bits inside the filter bag.
A veritable waterfall of cider begins to pour out. Sometimes it's amber, sometimes pale gold, sometimes pink. It depends on which variety of apples we are pressing at the time. We keep them separated by tree in the pressing process. That way we can begin to have a record of how the trees are doing from year to year, and also how each kind tastes on its own. Then we can blend them later if we want.
After the container is filled we switch it out for our other one. Then we strain the cider into recycled gallon jugs. After that we drink it or freeze it or blend it in a five-gallon carboy to begin making hard cider.

The best thing about making cider is finding such a delicious way to use all these apples that the Perrys and the Gouldens planted so many years ago. We pressed a little over fifty one gallons this year, and we saved some for eating and baking. Tonight our apple portfolio is off the charts.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The blessing of the animals

It's Canadian Thanksgiving today and I'm grateful to be watching deer.
Who may be grateful for windfall apples and left-over mash from the cider press.
Or maybe they aren't "grateful," in our sense. But they do love apples. And I think they love a warm and sunny fall day, too.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Apple cider

Greg picked all the apples from about thirty trees, a big job that took several days. For the past week the shed has been filling up with apples in stacked-up fish pans, old plastic buckets, galvanized pails and milk crates. The shed is one of those magical places that, though small on the outside, can -- when need arises --hold a huge amount within. This is one of those times.

Today we pressed the apples from just two trees: the tree down by the fish house and one of the trees that stand along the lower road. The fish house tree gave us a little over four gallons of cider. Last year a big wind blew all those apples off the tree. The fish house apple tree leans out over the rocks along the cove. So even though it's a small tree it is a challenge to harvest. I don't know what kind of tree it is. It could just be a wild apple tree.

The tree along the lower road is something like a Rhode Island Greening. Last year we got one quart from it. This year we got eighteen gallons. We are wondering whether some of our trees bear in alternate years. Another Greening was a big producer last year and had exactly one apple this year. I have read that Rhode Island Greening tends to do this.

Today was sunny and bright, great for cider-making. But it got windier and windier in the afternoon until we finally called it quits. (Also the Patriots were scheduled for five o'clock.) We'll do as much as we can tomorrow, which promises to be another sunny day.
Tonight I drank fresh cider from the maybe Rhode Island Greening tree. Real cider is an amazing sensory experience. I imagine it was a common seasonal drink for people around here before the invention of soft drinks.

But after that everybody forgot what real cider tasted like. It was the time in the world when we all believed things would go better with Coke.
That hasn't worked out so well. But it's not too late to discover cider again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My parsnip harvest

Parsnips sounded quaint and rustically charming, like something out of Peter Rabbit. Yet I believe they are ordinary fare for Nova Scotians, or at least still held honourably in the collective Nova Scotian memory. Skipper speaks of them fondly. But I had never seen one that I knew of, much less eaten one. As I've written before, I am a refugee from an over-developed culture, and the whole idea of food coming from seeds planted in the earth was mind-bending for me.

But I read about parsnips somewhere, and they were described as an overlooked vegetable with a delicate taste. "I like them," Greg said last spring, when I consulted him on what to plant. It never occurred to me to wonder how he knew he liked them. Since as far as I knew he hadn't had any in the past twenty years or so. Greg has this mythical childhood well of knowledge that he can evoke whenever you try to push him. I bought a packet of seeds.

The first planting did not go well. But then, most of the first plantings of everything got washed away in a series of spring deluges. I planted the seeds again. And again. Somewhere along the way I read that parsnips are like that. The seeds themselves are sulky, easily offended, and often don't germinate, maybe just to spite themselves. You must keep replanting and replanting until they do. That was encouragement enough, a kind of affirmation that my personal experience was a common one. I did not feel so alone with my failed parsnip row, and after it finally took hold and began to grow its big dark leaves, I even went so far as to plant a second row.

By then I was actually falling in love with parsnips. I began to realize that they were good for the lazy gardener. Once the leaves have emerged from the ground all you need to do is wait. And you can pull them any time you like, the later the better. Frost only improves their taste. There's nothing urgent about the parsnip harvest. They are iffy and hard to please in the start-up phase, but once they take hold they are constant. I liked that.

And at the end I discovered one more good thing about parsnips. They are beneath the notice of deer and sheep. I guess it's because of their poisonous leaves, although they gobbled up the tomatoes and peppers, stems, leaves and all, which are also said to be poisonous. But after the garden was laid low the parsnips still stood, heroic in an overlooked kind of way.

So I have begun to harvest them. So far I have pulled up about a dozen, and there are another three dozen still in the ground. The first ones were a revelation: huge white things that had grown deep beneath the soil, all unbeknownst. Some were fancied-up with extraneous waving rootlettes that gave them a certain aura of wildness, like they'd try anything once. Others were sober and long and thick and pale -- iconic parsnips, a fitting food in this province of fish and bread and tea, as Elizabeth Bishop calls it.*
Greg has found a recipe for parsnip patties in the old Farm Journal Cookbook, and I'm sure there is a parsnip and leek and potato soup in our future. We could call it Left Alone Soup, since those are the three vegetables in our garden that the deer and sheep ignored.

*In her poem The Moose.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


It was a fine day for clouds.In the afternoon they played about the sky, shape-shifting in the wind.
The sky becomes more interesting, more intensely blue, when clouds run through it.
There is a luminous quality to this sky.
Another dimension of the island's beauty.