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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

View from the dock

Here are a few pictures  from the dock, earlier this week, on a day not too cold, not too windy, not too wet. 
The view looking back toward Fort Point and Shelburne. 
The gulls seem content, on a rock in the cove, not far from the fish house.
Submerged rockweed, attached to the rocks, gently waves back and forth in a high tide.
When the tide goes out again  rockweed inhabits the airy upper world. It seems lifeless then, draped over the rocks. But it isn't, really. It's just waiting. When the tide returns the water lifts it up again. The upper part of the plant floats on the surface, held up by tiny air-filled sacs. But it's also attached to the rock below by its holdfast.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A reading life

There were lots of old books in our house when we first arrived. Some were too dampish and mildewed  to keep. Those are now slowly returning to the earth from whence they came, in a place only I know about. Others are valuable resource books, like The World of the White-tailed Deer, by Leonard Lee Rue III (Philadelphia, 1962); A Field Guide to Wildflowers, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny (Boston, 1968); The Bottle Collector, by Azor Vienneau (Halifax, 1969), which sounds like a title for a novel, and has an entire section on Nova Scotian bottles; and A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane (New York, 1965). In the realm of fiction we have A Century of Sea Stories, edited by Rafael Sabatini (London, n.d.), an anthology including excerpts from some of the classics as well as stories and writers I'd never heard of. It's a fine haul that can turn a quiet night in front of the fire into an exciting adventure, or at least into a greater knowledge of bottles.

Then there's the disaster-at-sea genre. Our house came complete with a copy of The Tragic Story of the Empress of Ireland: An Authentic Account of the Most Horrible Disaster in Canadian History, Constructed from the Real Facts Obtained from Those on Board Who Survived, And Other Great Sea Disasters, by Logan Marshall (n.p.,1914). Those Other Great Sea Disasters include an account of the S.S. Atlantic, which ran aground outside of Halifax on April Fool's Day, 1873, with enormous loss of life.

The story of Atlantic has been told again, by Greg Cochkanoff and Bob Chaulk, in SS Atlantic: The White Star Line's First Disaster at Sea (Goose Lane, Fredericton, NB, 2009). I am not a big fan of disaster-at-sea, but SS Atlantic has been nominated for various prizes this year, and Goose Lane is a very interesting publisher, so I sprang for it.
SS Atlantic
Or rather, I didn't spring for it. Instead, I used my now default method of acquiring books. If it wasn't already in the house when we came here, or if I didn't bring it with me, carting boxes and boxes of a much-winnowed-down collection across the harbour (and now they, too, belong to the house, forever, since as you may remember: lots of things come onto the island, but nothing ever goes off), then I borrowed it from the Western Counties Regional Library.

It's so much fun to borrow books from our library. I noodle around on line and read reviews. I write down the title and author of whatever looks interesting. As a Landed Immigrant, always eager to learn more about my chosen country, I go especially for Canadian literature and non-fiction. Books that hint they may allow me a glimpse into the shy and elusive Canadian soul. Then I log onto my library account and reserve the books. If it's a hot new book, like Michael Crummey's Galore, then I'll be on a waiting list for a while. It took a long time to get Too Much Happiness, and The Bishop's Man, and Under This Unbroken Sky, and The Winter Vault, which were all nominated for recent prizes, even though Alice Munro turned down her nomination. Only one of those books, by the way, contained very much happiness.

On the other hand, Lisa Moore's startlingly fabulous February, joyously heartbreaking or heartbreakingly joyous, and David Adams Richards' brilliant and infuriating Mercy Among the Childrencame right away. Anyway, the waits, when they come, are worth it, and it's not like I'm just sitting around twiddling my thumbs. I do have The Bottle Collector after all.

If the Western Regional Library doesn't have the book I want, I can order it from another regional library in Nova Scotia, or from the Halifax Public Library, or from Acadia University in Wolfeville. Eventually, from across the Province, the books of my desire arrive at the McKay Memorial Library in Shelburne. They sit on a shelf with my name attached until Greg stops by and pick them up, along with whatever he has ordered for himself. I do think the library is one of the world's best inventions. And the internet, too.  A fabulous combination for someone whose reading habit can get very expensive, and lives on an island. Or anywhere, for that matter.
So I got SS Atlantic from the library. And I'm glad I did. It's a gripping, detailed account of a colossal failure made up of carelessness and negligence, poor communication among the officers, and a deadly combination of ignorance and overconfidence, with the inevitable result of disorientation. Not good when you are steaming full throttle at a huge rock. Which most of us find ourselves doing at some point in our lives, I guess, so it's a cautionary tale. I came away with fresh appreciation for the dangers of these North Atlantic waters and this Nova Scotia coast, and for the wondrous lighthouses along its shore.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to keep warm

It has been cold here -- way, way below freezing -- for the past couple of days. This season, which for purposes of accuracy we will not actually call Spring, swings back and forth between extremes. One day last week I was outside raking up dead ferns in a short-sleeved tee shirt. Today that wouldn't work out so well.

There are two basic ways for us to keep warm when it's this cold. There's the day-time way: plenty of logs in the wood stove that sits in the middle of the living room and heats this one room pretty nicely, as long as there's no cold wind blowing in from the west, through all the tiny cracks in the house.

Then there's the night-time way: piling on the blankets in our unheated bedroom over the living room. We use a combination of an old wool blanket that came with the house, two quilts, ditto, one on top of the other, and then, on top of everything else, a fat layer of cotton comforter we brought with us when we moved here. I think the layering itself has some effect, since with each successive layer you are trapping pockets of air that effectively create more insulation. Of course one decent goose-down comforter would do the trick. But we don't own one, and we do own this other assemblage, and it works.

The first summer we lived here, Anne Barclay Priest emailed us to say that she wanted to come and visit. She would come over in her outboard motor boat, she told us. Anne is the author of Trafficking in Sheep, her memoir of buying a summer place at Green Harbour in the early 1970s, and later buying Blue Island and becoming an owner of sheep. During that time she became a good friend of Elizabeth Hyde, who owned our place for over thirty years, and died in 1993.

Anne laid out her route for us: she would cross the mouth of Jordan Bay, then round Cape Roseway, at the southern end of McNutt's Island, enter the Western Passage, pass along The Point, and come into Hagar's Cove. It's the way she used to come when she visited Elizabeth, she told us.

On the day of our meeting we watched from the shore as Anne steered her skiff along the Western Passage and headed into the cove. She moored in the cove, untied the dinghy that trailed behind her skiff, and rowed ashore, up to the remnants of the haul-up Elizabeth had built and used long before. After she tied up, she clambered over the old haul-up and we forged our way along the over-grown path from the cove to the house. Anne was already in her eighties that summer and still a force of nature.

Before she arrived, I worried that Anne might not approve of the changes we had made. But she enjoyed the wind turbine and the solar tracker and the idea of having electricity in the old house. She admired the washing machine and the indoor plumbing and told us Elizabeth would have loved it.

In the bedroom she spied one of the quilts and burst into laughter. "These two quilts!" she said. "Elizabeth and I had quite a spat over them. I had found this wonderful quilt maker in Jordan Bay. And I had ordered two quilts for myself. Then I made the mistake of telling Elizabeth about my find. When I went to ask about the progress of my quilts several months later, the quilt maker told me that Elizabeth had already come and bought them, out from under my nose. I was mad at the quilt-maker for selling them to Elizabeth and I was mad at Elizabeth for buying them. But I got over it, and Elizabeth just thought it was funny."

I think of the three women whose stories intertwine like a design in a quilt: the quilt-maker herself, and the two friends, each with such an adventurous life. We have the quilts by the quirk of a trick, and then later by the kindness of Elizabeth's daughter who left them here for us to keep. They remind me every day of how all the various bits and pieces of our lives are somehow patched together.

And of how, the more you look at anything, the more beautiful and intricate and surprising, really, you see that it is.
On these cold nights they keep us warm.

Yesterday I had a lovely back and forth with Janet Gordon, a quilt-maker who lives in Hall's Harbour, over on the Bay of Fundy. It's cold over there, too. Janet got me thinking about these quilts we inherited. She has a blog about the quilts she makes and sells, and about life in Hall's Harbour. If you want to learn how to quilt, she has a teaching blog, too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

McNutt's geography: Samuel Champlain's map of 1607

Samuel Champlain made a map of this coastline in 1607.  In terms of accuracy it's not up to his usual standards. But people think he was in a hurry, or maybe there was a lot of fog the day he sailed by. For whatever reason, it was a broad-brush effort. Maybe he wanted to document the dangerous places along the coast, for sailors. And you can see them here, innocent looking little circles to indicate the deadly shoals, breakers and rocks that are sprinkled through the waters from Cape Forchu (Yarmouth) up to Port Rossignol (Liverpool).

The map is a reminder of what an unsettled place this was. Champlain shows houses where a few French traders may have lived back then, around what are now the many many villages of Pubnico, and at Rossignol. But in the interior, the mapmaker shows nothing but trees. It's still like that, more or less.

There is  a three-branched harbour in about the centre of the coastline. That is probably what is now called Shelburne Harbour, or maybe Shelburne Harbour and Jordan Bay shown together as one. Champlain seems to have labelled it Port d'Negro. There's an island in the harbour, which could be what's now called McNutt's. Just to the south of it, in its more-or-less correct place, is Cape Negro.

It gives me the shivers to think that Samuel Champlain sailed past this place, even in the fog.

Thanks to Terry Deveau for sharing this map with me. The original is in the US Library of Congress.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March sheep

I am happy today that I am not a sheep:scrounging around for whatever edible bits they can dislodge,
while wearing wool coats soaked through after two days of cold rain, and pregnant, too --
and yet you don't hear them complain.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Another lighthouse artist

Otis Dow Orchard, a keeper at Cape Roseway for many years, left his autograph on one of the rocks near the lighthouse for future generations to discover and marvel at.
Otis Orchard married an island girl, Ethel Rapp, in 1921. I imagine that her family had invited the young new lightkeeper over for supper as soon as he arrived to take up his duties. Ethel was born on McNutt's Island and grew up here, in that area along the southwest side of the island where several members of the Rapp extended family had houses and farms for generations.

Ethel's mother was Annie Perry Rapp, who was born and grew up in the house we live in now. Ethel's father, George, was born on McNutt's Island, too. Back then, the island was a small but stable community of interlocking families who fished and farmed and walked along the roads and paths that led from house to house. I wonder if in those days they ever imagined how empty the island would later become.

Otis was keeper at Cape Roseway from sometime before he married, in 1921, until the mid 1950s. In a 1950 interview in The Standard, a weekend newspaper supplement, Otis Orchard reminisced about the shipwrecks that had occurred off the island during his tenure, never with loss of life. He told the newspaper reporter that he enjoyed raising cabbage and turnips and potatoes with his wife, and making oil paintings of ships in his spare time.

He also devoted some effort to writing his name on a rock, and so left us a way to remember him, and the world he lived in.

Information about Otis Orchard and Ethel Rapp Orchard can be found in the Vital Statistics section of NSARM, and in the census records. In their 1921 marriage certificate Otis is listed as "engineer," already living on McNutt's Island.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Subtle season

A song sparrow was hanging out near the bird feeder yesterday, looking fierce. I don't know his story. He doesn't make his winter home here, so he has come from away. But how far he has traveled, whether across the great Gulf of Maine or along the mighty St. Lawrence River, I can't say. Anyway, now he is here, hopping about below the bird feeder. He is small, and commonly regarded as common, and easily overlooked. Even in this picture you have to look closely to see him. He does not stand out, really. And yet he has just completed an astonishing feat.

Spring arrives on the island like this. The signs are subtle and at first glance nothing special. A few dark-eyed juncos arrived along with the song sparrows. I met one of them yesterday as he was sitting on a gnarly branch of the old pear tree. His beak was stuffed with the lichen called old man's beard. "Hello!" I said to him, "Welcome back!" He just looked at me, but he didn't fly off.

I wonder if I lived in a place that had a great variety of song birds whether I would take any notice of these commonplace birds. I think I would probably go for the showy types, the celebrity birds, the shiny bright ones, and not pay any attention to these. And yet they are miraculous, in a modest kind of way, and bear close watching, like this island spring itself.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring lighthouse

I wanted to walk along the main road and pick up beer cans today. It seemed like a good way to welcome spring. This ancient island sign enjoins all passersby to not drop cans. A few people just ignore it, I guess.
Picking up cans is a great excuse to walk along the main road. And to tell the truth, I only filled half a contractor bag with cans, along with some plastic water bottles and glass beer bottles. That's really not much for a five kilometer-long stretch of road.

Half-way through my walk, I hitched a ride on an ATV -- ours -- and together Greg and I zipped up to the lighthouse.
We waved at a passing skiff.
They were enjoying the first day of spring, for sure.
As you cans see, the water was quite calm today.

I counted nineteen sheep at the light. They moved along when we arrived, but they didn't bother to go too far away.
They are enjoying the warm sun and the possibility of a change in diet (not that they don't like kelp). In years past they have been pretty scruffy by this time. But their coats look beautiful this year.
Cape Roseway Light welcomed spring today.

Friday, March 19, 2010

House call from MaManna

Yesterday our alternative energy company, MaManna, arrived to perform brain surgery on the Skystream.Its thinking has not been entirely rational of late. By some clever means, the people at Skystream, in far off Flagstaff Arizona, could peer into our wind turbine's deepest thoughts and figure out what was going wrong. Skystream decided that our wind turbine needed a new brain. Happily, there's a five-year warranty on brains. So Skystream sent MaManna to make everything right again.
First they dropped the tower. I would have thought that would be scary and hard. But no, they said. Piece of cake. Troy is one of the MaManna guys.
Skipper brought the MaManna team over to the island on Sailor Boy with all their equipment. He also provided his island vehicle for winching. Andy is on the right.
Andy went to Boston to train with Skystream. They travelled all over New England practicing the intricacies of installation. He says this Skystream turbine is one of his favourites: easy to work with, and very reliable. I wonder if he says that about all the turbines.
Here's the turbine, out cold. Allan is sort of head surgeon, I guess. He speaks another language when he's on the phone with the Skystream people in Arizona. Fortunately they understand each other.
After surgery, resurrecting the turbine. It does look easy. Of course, I'm not doing a thing. And obviously neither is Greg.
Winch and Chevrolet: old technology in service of the new.
Troy shows me the old brain. I think it goes back to Skystream for an autopsy.
I personally can't see anything wrong with it. But then what do I know.
Sailor Boy was loaded up and on her way back to Fort Point by about 4:30. MaManna is located in Dartmouth, just east of Halifax. So the guys had another few hours to travel before they would be home.
They left our turbine whirring happily in the wind again.
And they sailed away.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Encounter with The Major

The Major was alone in the lower apple orchard yesterday. I thought he might not mind if I were to take a few pictures of him. As long as I was discreet.
At this time of year the apple trees show no sign of the glory to come, except for the slightest swelling of buds.
Sometimes we see The Major alone, as he is here, ruminating and contemplating.
He didn't seem to be disturbed by my presence. Though he certainly was aware of it from the moment I began to walk down the bog path toward the lower orchard.
I am often struck by The Major's gentle dignity. Though when I think about it, it seems to me that most of the other sheep share these same traits. They are peaceful animals.You can see the Point in the background here, which is the shingle beach that defines the southern arm of Hagar's Cove. And in the distance beyond the Point you can see Grey's Island, that small and magical place, a kingdom of mice.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Stone walls waking up

The island's old stone walls are beginning to wake up. Today the sun is warming them and the moss is tickling their skin.
Hidden inside the walls the snakes slowly stretch, and open only one eye for now. It's too early yet for them. They need a bit more of a snooze -- a couple more weeks, maybe.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ready for birds

We have a new bird feeder, from the hardware store in town. I hope the birds have a sense of perspective, or else they'll want to go inside and live there. It's very confusing since it looks so much like our house. Though our house is not filled with bird seed. And is a bit bigger than this.
The seed goes in through the chimney. Clever, eh? And -- wonderfully -- it's plastic. So it may stand up to the weather better than the old one did. The upside down something-or-other beneath the feeder will keep the squirrels away, though the squirrels have actually never seemed interested in bird seed.
We brought this house with us when we came to the island in 2007. But Greg was busy with other things until today. Now it's awaiting its first residents.
We also have this lovely condo on offer. They both rent by the season.

The island's song birds may look little and sweet, but they are every one of them rough and tough. They really have no need of these fancy new accommodations, making do perfectly well with something they throw together out of sticks, moss and sheep rovings. But -- who knows? -- maybe an early adopter will discover the pleasures of a roof over her head. If so, more fun for us! As you can see, there's a tiny little wind turbine that powers the new bird feeder. Nothing is too good for the island's birds.