In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Monday, May 31, 2010

last day of lobster season

Two lobster boats on their way back to the wharves at Gunning Cove and Fort Point yesterday.
On a breezy day, stern sails catch the wind. Lobstering is over for now; next season will begin at the end of November.
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world of wind

For the past several days a strong westerly wind has blown across the island. The days are sparkling with sunlight on deep teal waters and skies that are a correspondingly intense blue, sometimes filled with racing nimbus and cumulus clouds that turn the day from cold to hot to cold again so that everything's changing, all the time, all day. Dramatic weather is one of Nova Scotia's great overlooked and unsung gifts to the world.

Today is the last day of lobster season for this district. Boats are picking up their traps and returning to the mainland. It's a challenging enterprise, bringing in a mass of heavy traps stacked high and filling the deck of the boat. A calmer day would make the effort easier, but there it is. Maybe they will hoist their stern sails, catch a tail wind, and save a bit of diesel on the run home.

In the garden I have almost finished amending the soil in the raised beds. I forked it over a few times until the tines of the fork sank down like butter, then added my half-baked compost and let it sit on top. Before I plant I'll work that compost in. There's not much dirt in this part of Nova Scotia. Rocks, yes. Moss, yes. Swampy boggy cold wet stuff lying just beneath the surface even in places where the ground looks firm enough, definitely yes.

But our vegetable garden sits where the early island settlers had theirs, I think. They did the hard work. And so the soil is good to begin with, though it was compacted when we first began. Now I'm building on the cumulative effort of the past hundred and fifty years, adding another layer.
As I work the wind sings through the mesh of the herring net that fences the garden. This magical net can catch fish in the sea and stop deer and sheep from invading the garden. But it does not even try to hold back the wind.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

caught in the net

Skipper set out the gillnet in the cove on Victoria Day. I was supposed to meet him at his place that morning so I could learn how to set the net and take it up again. Since whoever is monitoring it needs to take it up every so often and lay it out on the shore to dry. I missed my lesson, though, and he fired me right then and there. Luckily for me, I am the only worker actually available on the island, so he had to rehire me immediately, and at twice my original pay.

Yesterday morning the net held five fish of some variety we couldn't identify. We had two for supper last night. They were bony but delicious. But maybe that was beginner's luck, because when I went back out in the afternoon there were none.

Today was a quite different story. The remains of several fish lay caught in the net. The seal had had his breakfast. He is a sloppy eater, biting off whatever is nearest him and leaving the rest. I worked my way down the net, releasing half-eaten leftovers. One little fish was quite alive and slipped away happily. As I went along I cleaned out rockweed and kelp that had drifted into the net.

I came upon three small lobsters. The first two were small enough that they were easy to hold in one hand while with the other I slowly disentangled the net from their claws and carapace, admiring them the whole time, and also staying clear of their furiously waving pincers. I told them not to swim into the net again, and slipped them back into the water.

The third lobster was a bit larger. It was easy enough to ease the net around and off his legs and tail and body. But his pincer claw grasped several strands of net like there was no tomorrow. I explained to him that I couldn't release him until he had let go of the net. But he was not listening. Maybe he was too anxious. Maybe holding onto the net was giving him some sense of security. And here I was, someone he didn't even know all that well, trying to convince him to let go. It seemed obvious to me that he was creating his own problem here. But then I suspect I do the same thing myself once in a while.

Finally I remembered that if you tapped his upper claw a bit he would open the pincers. And that's what he did. At which point he briefly experienced the amazement of flight before returning rather abruptly to his safe haven beneath the water. All in all, it was a memorable day for three little lobsters.

After that, fishless, I rowed all the way to the Horseshoe and back, on smooth water sometimes crosshatched and stippled, sometimes swelling softly beneath the boat. The island's stillness was broken only by the songs of white throated sparrows in the forest and terns fluttering over the water. In the distance I could hear the muffled, hollow metallic sounds of work being done on the shipyard in Shelburne. Occasionally a lobster boat steamed homeward. Fog hugged both the northern and southern ends of the island. The cove waters were pearl and silver, beneath a drifting sky of changeable grey and a hint of sunlight.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Victoria Day

Today we honour Queen Victoria's birthday, only I don't think she gets much attention, actually. It's a national holiday that marks the beginning of summer, and I've read that it's a weekend when people go camping, or open up their summer cottages.

Here on McNutt's Island the weekend is passing uneventfully. Skipper brought Michelle and Chris out with toddler Autumn and her adorable big sister Susannah for an overnight. Dylan and Devon completed the group. The boys drove about in Dylan's new vehicle, and there was rowing, gill net setting, lamb watching and barbequeing down at that end of the cove. I believe the McNutt's Market was also briefly open for business, though by the time I went by it was closed again.

Life has been quiet in our part of the cove, except for the racket made by toads, white throated sparrows and squabbling robins. Such a din sometimes! Greg is working on his Chariot, a wagon-like contraption for pulling visitors behind the ATV. I am nursing the seedlings along inside the greenhouse, and preparing the beds in the garden. The weekend has been beyond gorgeous. I have heard rumours of gull chicks and baby lambs, but haven't yet seen any with my own eyes.

From the perspective of the Victorians, Nova Scotia was an outermost hinterland of the empire, a vague obscure place where people sometimes went to make a fresh start or avoid further trouble. From the perspective of the islanders, I imagine, Victoria herself was a vague presence off somewhere far away, unlikely to take notice of them or to interfere with their daily lives. I don't imagine the queen's birthday was ever much celebrated here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

rainy days

Two days of chilly rain remind me that the seasons do not turn upon our needs. Spring is happening out there, but on its own terms, which sometimes coincide with ours but sometimes not. In the midst of rain and wind the earth stretches and warms for its summer dance. The light grows longer, buttercups arise. The ferns unfold, and repair a broken patch of dead forest with their greenery.

Luckily we still have dry wood for the stove, library books to read, and jeans to mend.

I am not good at sewing, but I can patch a rip in a pair of jeans. It isn't false economy to keep Greg's old work jeans in repair. He's hard on his jeans, snagging them on this and that. And being six feet and five inches tall, and that mostly legs, he is such an odd size that Frenchy's does not have jeans for him. To replace the ones he wears every day would mean buying something new and not cheap. I'm being practical here, not romantic or sentimental.

My patching is inept and slow. I think of all the women of the past who have kept their household's clothing in good repair over years of wear and tear. I imagine they never sat down without a needle and thread in hand. I think of the fishermen mending their nets, of old farm wagons and machinery kept in service for decades. How, I wonder, did the act of mending become so out of date, the art become so lost?

The patched jeans have a certain something that new jeans lack, though I wouldn't go so far as to say exactly what that certain something might be. They are evidence that things both momentous and mundane are always falling apart and breaking. At some times -- in spring, for example -- the world goes about repairing itself, gracefully and on its own terms. With my uneven stitches I join the dance, however awkwardly.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

view from the cove

The water is blue silk today, and so this morning I rowed out to the middle of the cove. Then I sat in the boat and looked all around and watched the morning unfold.

A dignified seal took the air and swam about nearby, calmly ignoring me. I could hear his relations singing across the harbour, from their favourite ledges, which are actually named Seal Ledges on some maps. I think the False Passage seals have been here since time began. It's possible they own the water here, although I don't imagine they have any deeds to prove it.

The water was so clear that, as I rowed, I could see the cove's silty bottom beyond the rocky shoreline, long strands of seaweed undulating in waving shafts of sunlight. Several lobster pots have been set here, and I carefully rowed around their bright coloured lines and gently floating buoys.

A few gulls gathered on the point for a brief meeting, conferred, then went about their day. The rams wandered along the shore, foraging. Today the ram elders have allowed the fourth ram, the young one with the long tail, to join them.

White wisps of cloud drifted high above the water across a sky whose intense blueness was off the colour charts and so cannot be named. If you tried to name it you would do it an injustice, so inadequate would your effort be. A heron flew gracefully through that nameless blueness, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to sail through such a sky.

Monday, May 17, 2010

cinnamon ferns unfolding

Cinnamon ferns rise from clumps built up over years of previous fern growth and decay
This is the season when you can see their essential structure.
Soon their huge dark green fronds will be fully open. All summer they will dominate their immediate neighbourhood. It will be hard to remember the beauty of this early phase.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

blooming island

The apple and pear trees are beginning to blossom. I'm grateful that we decided not to try to restore these trees, beyond some basic pruning. If we had tried to maximize their fruitfulness we would now be engaged in a huge and I think frustrating struggle. Every time we looked at them we would sigh and think of all we needed to be doing to fix them up. Which probably wouldn't be successful, anyway. But instead we just enjoy what they offer us, as is, as they say.

And we are not alone. They are home to all kinds of insects, and the downy woodpeckers love them. The robins build nests in their gnarled branches and the sheep are in ecstasy as they scratch themselves against the rough old bark. Right now bees and butterflies hum and buzz and flutter happily among the blossoms.
These ancient apple trees give joy to the island's creatures in every season, including us. So I'm glad we didn't focus on the number and condition of the apples they produced. We might have missed seeing how much they provide in so many other ways.

Friday, May 14, 2010

ready to go

Greg repaired and repainted my old rowboat, Roseneath, a few weeks ago. She's been curing ever since, up next to the shed. This afternoon she was sitting on the old haul-up, at low tide.
When the tide rises Greg will take her over to her new summer home, the floating dock.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

early morning sheep, ruminating

As the sun warmed the grass this morning, several ewes settled down in the side yard. They are ruminating -- chewing over their previous meal. It's a kind of processing most of us can identify with. Rumination may not be very useful for people, but it seems restful for sheep.
They are more or less waiting now. They'll begin to give birth sometime next week. Maybe while they quietly chew their cud, they are savouring these last peaceful days.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

sleeping beauty

Here are pictures of our house before we bought it.I think it had always been painted red with white trim.
The yard looks nicely mowed even back then, when nobody was living here. We still have the same mowing crew. We had to take down the two chimneys. They were unsafe, but they were so beautiful, and I hated losing them. We used the old brick to make a walk along the side of the house.
You can see why we fell in love with it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Planting lazy potato beds

It's my second year for planting lazy potato beds.Greg picked up five varieties of seed potatoes at Uncle Sid's, which is near Shelburne.
He got Eramosa, Superior, Yukon Gold, Kennebec, and Red Pontiac.
After they sprouted I cut them up and planted them in the fish bait boxes, which are called fish pans by the people who really use them for their intended purpose, which would be --fish bait.

The potatoes are planted in a little dirt and a lot of seaweed. I think I am only beginning to appreciate the many uses of seaweed.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Strawberry wisdom

For years, before we came to this blessed place, I ate something that looked like a strawberry but actually had no taste at all. After a while it became something I wouldn't even bother to buy, even though, of course, it was available in the grocery store all year around. But once in a while it showed up on your dessert plate in a restaurant, a pretty garnish.

The first summer we arrived in Nova Scotia we began seeing hand-written signs outside Spencer's, the local garden centre, announcing that Lore's strawberries had arrived. What's the big deal with Lore's strawberries, I said to myself. But we bought a pint and took them home.

I remember my first bite of that first strawberry. It evoked in me a curious combination of emotions: speechless joy, but also anger that I had been so badly fooled for so many years, and sadness for all I'd missed. A strawberry is not something to be casually plunked onto the side of a plate, for colour. A strawberry is -- oh, let's just say it -- a sign of heaven. And a hard dry thing having only the appearance of a strawberry is a travesty and a mockery and does not deserve the name.

The Nova Scotia strawberry season lasts only a few weeks, depending on the weather. It is to be patiently and eagerly awaited, and entered into with awe. You must empty out everything that keeps you from joy: your anxiety, your cynicism, your lack of forgiveness, your sense of entitlement. Make room, instead, for the fullness of gratitude. Taste and see. When you eat a strawberry, do not speak. The moment is too precious for that.

And then, because you cannot keep it (except for freezing, but that's not the same), the season ends, and only its memories remain.

Last fall Joanne McFadden, the pastor at Trinity United Church in Shelburne, offered me strawberry plants from her parsonage garden when the time was right. Then, the other day, the time was right. I dug the new raised bed Greg built for this exact purpose last fall, and added plenty of magical island compost.
Joanne gave the strawberry plants to Greg. They sailed across the sea to their new island home.
In only a few years, there will be strawberries on McNutt's Island. In the meantime, I'll watch for that handwritten sign at Spencer's, a simple word to the wise: Lore's strawberries are here.

Lore's Strawberry Farm is located at 5505 Upper Clyde Road, in Middle Clyde. The phone number there is 902-875-2102. You can pick your own strawberries at Lore's, or just get them at Spencer's.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

McNutt's Island Geography: Anthony Lockwood's map, 1816

Here's a map from Anthony Lockwood's A Brief Description of Nova Scotia (1818). Anthony Lockwood made a report to the to the newly established Commissioners of Light Houses in 1816. Up until then Nova Scotia's lighthouses had been under the authority of the Commissioners of Revenue. The same year the regulation of lighthouses was clarified by the House of Assembly. Lighthouse keepers would be paid an established annual salary, and would be expected to live full-time at the light.In 1816 there were only four lighthouses along the Nova Scotia coast, at Halifax, Shelburne, Liverpool and Brier Island. The light at Shelburne was the second one to be built. Its foundation stone was laid in January 1787, and it was completed in October 1790. It must have been a very arduous task to build this lighthouse. It would have required vast transportation of workers and equipment and supplies from Shelburne to the only possible landing sites, along the western cove, and then across the thickly forested island, to the cape on its southern end.

Even after the lighthouse was completed, it was not lit for another two years, first shining out of its distinctive two windows on September 7, 1792.
At the time of this map, Alexander Hood Cocken was keeper on McNutt's Island. He had taken over lighthouse duties after the death of his father Alexander Cocken, the first keeper, in 1812.

I found this map in W.O. Raymond, "Colonel McNutt and the Pre-Loyalist Settlements of Nova Scotia," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 3rd series, vol.V, 1911, sec.II, 23-115, p.97. The map and article can be found online at

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Eating locally

I love the idea of the hundred mile diet but sometimes I think we are aiming for something a bit more local -- the (mostly) three mile diet, maybe. Or the (maybe) three mile diet, mostly. But with bananas and chocolate and coffee from somewhere far far away -- farther even than Ontario. We aren't very rigorous about it. Instead of setting rules for ourselves, we have just tried to discover the edible opportunities in our new situation. And so, gradually, over the last three years, everything changed for us.
And for dinner the other night: our first-ever asparagus! Yes, it was a tiny amount, but so pretty and good. This is the only harvest we'll allow ourselves this season. It's supposed to keep growing its root system so that in a couple more years it will be a strong perennial crop and we'll be able to harvest asparagus for several weeks. And to go with our teeny tiny asparagus helpings -- lobster from right here in the the cove, thanks to Dylan and Dylan's dad.

We are coming to the end of all the food we put away in the freezer last fall: island lamb and mutton and mutton sausage; mackerel from the cove; cranberry sauce and chanterelles from island foraging; and from the garden, grape leaves, beans, chard, snap peas, beets, cabbage soup, squash soup, zucchini soup, and pesto of all sorts -- marjoram, sage, parsley, and carrot top. Even with our garden losses last fall, we did pretty well with vegetables thanks to Mary and Leroy's gifts. We still have fresh apple cider in the freezer and hard cider in bottles in the cellar. The home-made beer is -- alas -- all gone.

It was amazing to realize how much of what we ate this year was food we had grown, caught, found, bartered for or been given. And just how close to home most of it was. It has been easier than I ever would have thought to shed the habitual behaviours of a life time and do it all differently.

I planted peas and lettuce last Saturday and with luck we'll be eating a bit of home grown salad by the end of June. In the meantime, the Shelburne Farmers' Market begins its second year soon. That's pretty local, too.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Does she float?

Why yes, she does.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Launch for Island Year on May 18th

We are so excited that Greg's book is having its launch. We actually did not know what a "launch" was. I'm still not certain. But I think I'm about to learn.
The launch for Island Year:Finding Nova Scotia is sponsored and hosted by The Whirligig Book Shop on Water Street in Shelburne. Whirligig owners Betty and Bill Camp have provided the Shelburne area with this extraordinary place where you can not only find or order the book you want, but also discover books that you didn't know you needed until you see them there. And The Whirligig is also a kind of meeting place where you never know who you'll run into, or what local goings-on you 'll hear about.

Island Year will launch on May 18th at 7:00 pm, at Osprey Arts Centre, another terrific Shelburne institution. But there's no need to wait for the launch to buy Greg's book. It's available at The Whirligig right now!