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, April 30, 2010

A floating dock for my rowboat

Of all the projects that have been thought up around here during the past three years, this one is up there for amount of figuring required. First came the idea of a haul-up that I would use to slide my rowboat in and out of the water. It sounded good, but actually didn't work out so well.

Then came various ideas involving pulleys and winches and skids and boathouses. The ideas got more and more complicated, like something out of Dr. Seuss. None of them ever got past the thinking stage, though. They just swam around in Greg's mind until they gradually, slowly, sank.

But now: a floating dock. Some fine summer day, I will stroll down the hill and onto the wharf, step lightly down a ladder to a floating dock, untie Roseneath bobbing there, and glide away. The main idea is that Roseneath will not suffer so much in the way of crashing and dashing against rocks or wharf if she is tied to something that gives, and has lots of rubber fenders attached to it. And of course that I will continue my princess-like existence.But how to make a floating dock? Well, you could start with something you found that looks sort of like a dock so could maybe turn into one, with some tinkering.
Add as much styrofoam as you can scavenge from along the shore. It's still good for something! You are going to stuff it underneath the decking, then enclose it with more wood.
Don't forget to re-use those huge spikes that you've been saving for a special project. The whole thing may turn out to be too heavy. It could sink, like the famous Louis Clodette.* But we won't know that until it's in the water.

* If you want to know about the Louis Clodette you'll just have to read Greg's book.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Full moon rising

A full moon glimmered just below the tops of the spruce forest last night. Slowly it appeared.Maybe it's a good night to plant potatoes. Or have babies, or make them.
Maybe on this night the creatures of the sea feel an irresistible alluring, and turn and swim through watery silver light toward the nets of the fishermen.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A provincial heritage property, definitely

Here's the link to the page about our house that's now on the Nova Scotia Historic Places site.
I wonder what the Perrys -- who built the house and lived here for fifty years or so -- and the Gouldens -- who lived in it for the next forty years or so -- would think about all this.
Here's a picture of Bertha Snow Goulden and her son Martin. They are standing outside the kitchen, near the breezeway door. Bertha Snow Goulden was born on McNutt's Island and lived her entire life here. Her children were -- of course -- island children as well. One of her daughters still lives across the harbour from this house.
These daffodils are blooming in the spot where Bertha and Martin stood decades ago to have their picture taken. In a sense the Perrys and the Gouldens still inhabit this house. In a sense, it still belongs to them.

Thanks to Dan Goulden for sharing this family photo.

Monday, April 26, 2010

McNutt's geography: Des Barres chart of 1776

The J.F.W.Des Barres charts and maps in his Atlantic Neptune series (London, 1776-1781) help us remember what an isolated place Port Roseway was before the coming of the vast Loyalist tide in 1783. I have magnified this map and searched all over the shoreline for settlements. The only ones noted by the famously meticulous Des Barres (beside McNutt's place on the island) are two small clusters on the western shore of the harbour, across from what is now McNutt's Island. Des Barres called it Roseneath. There were no settlements at all where the Town of Shelburne now stands.
It makes sense. The western channel, called False Passage, was and is relatively tranquil and shallow, and the clusters of settlements are protected. Each cluster is located near a small bay and a sandy beach. And they are close enough to the ocean that small boats could come in and go out without the effort it would take to sail or row all the way into the inner harbour.

Today you can look across the western channel and see where those two settlements were so long ago, along the shore directly opposite here, at Carleton Village, and a bit south, directly across from the sheep pen, at Craine's Point and Roseway.
Here is Des Barres' map of Barrington Bay from the same time, showing the lots and buildings in Barrington. By 1776 Barrington was a recognizable place. It was hard to get to Barrington from Port Roseway, though, even though it was so near. It was almost impossible to walk there, across spruce forest and deadfall and swamp, and difficult to maneuver boats through the shoals and breakers along the coast. It gives us the faintest idea of how isolated the people at Port Roseway must have been back then.

Pages from The Atlantic Neptune are courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, London England.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Swamp Maple

This beautiful tree is Swamp Maple, also called Red Maple. Its flowers are everywhere on the island, along the roadside, and glimmering from the forest among spruce and deadfall.
It is Nova Scotia's most abundant hardwood, since it grows well in swamps, bogs, softwood forests and rocky uplands. The early settlers tapped the Swamp Maple as well as the Sugar Maple when sugar was scarce. So we could try it! Deer browse on its winter twigs.

Soon its glory will subside into something that will appear, at first glance, more ordinary. But just for a moment we are able to see it for what it really is.

Information taken from Gary L. Saunders, Trees of Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests, 1970).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Gawking about

Gawking about, I found various small signs in the woods and along the road today. Signs of what? you might ask. Oh, I don't know, really. Maybe you can figure it out. The little Canada violet, with its delicate tracing of purple, for discerning bees.
The small blue butterfly that dances from sunny place to sunny place, always keeping just beyond the corner of your eye. When the blue butterfly alights and is still and you would think -- aha! it's still, now! I can really, really see it! That's exactly the instant when it closes up its wings and becomes invisible. So this butterfly is just too quick to be caught on film or pixels. But it dances nevertheless.
I thought I knew what this tree was, but now I'm not sure. It is everywhere on the island, and it shimmers now like amethysts and rubies flung across the forest.
A fern rising from the ground. The sheep love to eat them, but do not worry. Multiply this fern by about one billion and you will have the number of ferns rising from the island right now, silently unfolding, all together.
There are vast moss forests, too.
This wild bee is a sort of cinnamon colour, and has a long proboscis. He seemed to be enjoying the grass that grows along the road. He's about twelve centimeters long not counting the schnozz. I have read that there are thousands of varieties of wild bees. This is not the one I saw near the lilac buds the other day. It was lovely to see another bee.
Bee shadow.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dramatic rescue at sea

I'm not hearing Skipper's motor, Greg told me. Skipper had taken off from the island in his little outboard, Miss McNutt, to run across the western channel. It's a ten-minute jaunt, the way he goes, to the sandy beach at Carleton Village, just opposite the island. From there it's just a hop, skip and a jump to home.Now he was adrift out there: we could see him motionless and silent from where we stood near the shed.

It was possible that a rescue was called for. Greg went down to the water's edge where he and Skipper conducted a ship-to-shore communication that required no technology whatsoever. Although Miss McNutt's motor had conked out, Skipper assured Greg that he would just drift over to Carleton Village, since the current was going in the right direction.

But then Greg wouldn't have had any fun.
The mighty Chopper steamed out into the treacherous waters of the False Passage. As you can see, it was exceptionally dangerous this evening. But Chopper was up to the challenge.
Skipper has rescued us so many times that I can't even count them all. Tonight was a chance to return the favour.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Roseneath repair

The repair of my wooden rowboat, Roseneath, is also a sign of spring around here.
She's been lying rather forlornly down on the shore all winter.Today Greg loaded her onto a trailer and pulled her up to the side yard, where it will be easier for him to work on her.
He'll sand, do a bit of caulking, prime, repaint, and make some minor repairs.
Soon she will be fresh again and ready to sail the seven seas.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wild thing

Skipper and Radar came by this afternoon for a small book party consisting of the four of us. They brought us two lobsters fresh from the sea. After Radar pulls the lobsters out of the traps he puts these heavy rubber bands on them, so their claws can't do serious damage. This year the bands are imprinted with an important message. In case anybody thinks they grew up on a lobster farm.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

April daffodils

Here along the North Atlantic, April is a season of cold, rain, fog and wind.
It's an environment that pares things down and makes it easy to focus on one thing. A sparrow, for instance. The deer, their coats changing colour from winter grey to summer cinnamon, foraging for tiny fern shoots in the field behind the vegetable garden fence. A few daffodils against a rock wall.
In the last week or so their hardy qualities have shone. They have been rained on and snowed on and hailed on, endured freezes and been blown about.
In some other, busier place, I would not particularly notice daffodils. Or if I did I might take them for granted.
But here they have my undivided attention. I look and look, and they always make me glad.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spring is coming

Signs of spring are different here. You don't see trees leafing out yet, and since most of the island's trees are spruce, there isn't any dramatic change anyway. The flowering of trees and bushes -- shadbush, apple, pear, wild cherry, rhodendron -- won't be happening for a while.
But one reliable sign of island spring is sheep lying down. Folks say they do this more often as their collective pregnancy advances.
Counting from the time Leroy dropped the rams off on the island -- December 22nd -- the lambs are due starting around the third week in May. I guess the flock is beginning to feel it.
It was quite amusing one day last week to see the ewes all taking it easy in the lower orchard, while the rams did the same in the back orchard. I wonder whether this is an example of sympathetic pregnancy.
Everyone is feeling a bit tuckered out.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Black pilots' connection to Henry Mowatt

"The Black Pilots," as they are known around here, are an enduring mystery of McNutt's Island. I have written about them several times before, and you can find those posts by going to the label black pilots. They were four pilots who were granted a shared fifty acre lot here on the island in 1784. The first record of the pilots and their families can be found in The Book of Negroes, that careful listing of every black loyalist who left New York between the spring of 1783 and the fall of 1785, bound most often for sites of refuge in Nova Scotia. The pilots, along with their wives and children and other extended family members, left aboard the Ann in the last week of April 1783 -- one of the first ships to leave New York. The pilots and their families were among the first refugees to arrive at Port Roseway in the first week of May.
The pilots not only traveled together, which in itself would show that they were already a community of mutual support. They also had in common an important connection -- Captain Henry Mowatt, of the British Navy. Henry Mowatt was commander of HMS La Sophia, in charge of the entire transport of the fleet of refugees, white and black, leaving New York City in those anxious and turbulent days. In the whole of The Book of Negroes there are no other black refugees listed as under his care: only these four black pilots and their families (and a fifth pilot, James Collin, who traveled with them and who appeared to have had no family and was not among those granted land on the island). It's likely that Captain Mowatt had relied upon the pilots' skills during the long war of rebellion, much of which occurred along the Virginia waterways the pilots knew so well. He would have stayed in contact with them in New York City. Now he undertook to safeguard their journey to Port Roseway.

In The Book of Negroes there is a column for claimant, that is, some white person who claims that this black person is actually their slave but is trying to escape under false pretenses. When there was a claimant, the British investigated, looked for documentation, listened to the stories of claimant and refugee, and decided whom to believe. For the black pilots and their families there is no "claimant" attempting to drag them back into slavery. That column is blank for every one of them. As pilots who served in the British navy their status is secure.

But next to the column for claimant is a column for Names of the persons in whose Possession they now are. Henry Mowatt is listed here, for every one of the pilots and their family members. Henry Mowatt was an important figure in the world of Loyalists, as they are called in Canadian history. As the officer in charge of transporting the fleets from New York, he was in and out of Shelburne during its early days. He brought the governor of the province up from Halifax aboard La Sophia to see the progress of the raw new town that summer, and hosted dignitaries for dinner on the ship. He was much respected by the white Loyalists, an anxious, contentious lot, who wrote to Admiral Digby begging that Mowatt not be removed from this appointment. One of the long streets in Shelburne was named in his honour. In the disorienting, fluid world of early Shelburne, the pilots' connection with Mowatt would have counted for something, and may be the reason they were granted a lot on the island, even though it was only one lot, to be shared among them.

The meaning of the category -- Names of the persons in whose Possession they now are -- is ambiguous. It could be an indenture of some sort -- a specific contract for work for a specific number of years. Indentures of black loyalists by whites were common in those early post-war years. Mowatt could have made some sort of contract with the pilots, hired them out as his indentured servants in Shelburne or Halifax, the men and boys to go on ships, and then pocketed their wages. That is a possibility.

But I'm pretty sure that the connection between Mowatt and the pilots was one of protection and support, not exploitation. And in a later post I will tell you why.

You can see the actual listing of the black pilots and their families in The Book of Negroes at NSARM's virtual exhibit, African Nova Scotians. That's so amazing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hey what's up, white throated sparrow

There's a huge contrast between how the white throated sparrow sounds -- angelic, in a sparrowish way -- and how he looks: like a checker cab, like a fancy cat, like he should be wearing retro sunglasses and a slouchy hat with a brim. He looks like a bird who spends the other half of the year surviving an incredibly cool and impossibly stressful hipster scene somewhere. I guess he comes up here to relax.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Island music

The trilling of the toads began eleven days ago. Now every evening they sing their abundant song, a chorus that  floats up from the cheerful neighbourhood watering hole that is their gathering place. There are no divas in the toad world. They are a harmonious lot, and they sing together. I imagine that if I were to walk quietly around the island at night I would hear them in every bog and swamp and low damp place: the whole island giving off a hopeful trilling sound.

In the middle of the night we hear the loon who has settled onto the cove water. Her call is singular. No living thing could resist the loon's call, and yet she is floating out there in the darkness by herself, at least for now. It is said that loons winter in the salt water and breed on the lakes in summer, but there are a few loons who spend their summers here in the cove, their lives elsewhere mysterious to us.

The wild bees are already hovering along the branches of the apple trees, even though the buds have not yet opened. If the world is quiet enough around you, you can hear the tiny sound of their wings beating against the air. I have read that the various sorts of wild bees emerge from their secret places exactly when their food supply is ready for them. I wonder how they can find what they need, since when I look around the only flowers I see that are open for business are the daffodils. On this subject, I imagine the wild bees know things I do not.

I heard the white throated sparrow for the first time today. If there were a Church of the Wild Things -- and maybe there is; who knows? --  this would be a holiday, or, as they were called back in the day, a holy day. But then if we were to celebrate such things, every day would be a holy day and we would never get our work done. There would be First Trilling Night, and a Loon Vigil, and an uproarious Wild Bee Day. And when the white throated sparrow returned to the island from God knows where, and perched impossibly high on a dead spruce tree and opened his beak and poured out his luminous notes for the first time, we would drop our rakes and stand in silent, gaping wonder.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia

Greg's book is out! The cover may look familiar -- we both love this picture, which Greg took on the perfect foggy day. Here are the book summary and author biography from the back cover:

"As they neared retirement, Greg Brown and his wife Anne gave up their life in the U.S. to settle on a windswept Nova Scotia island inhabited by wild sheep and deer, where harbour seals sing in the fog and an old lighthouse still keeps watch over the North Atlantic. Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia tells the story of the surprises, challenges and discoveries of their first year alone on an island as they restored an old fisherman's house, explored the island, and began to learn how to live a Nova Scotia way of life.

This is a story for anyone who dreams of exchanging a fast-paced, high-tech life for something slower and just maybe more meaningful. This is a story about the night sky and the dawn chorus, lobsters and wild raspberries, a famous pirate, the kindness of others, and getting in touch with yourself again. Funny and inspiring, this book redefines what a rich life can mean.

Greg Brown was born and raised in California. His grandfather was from Pugwash, and Nova Scotia was part of family lore. As a young man he worked with German conscientious objectors in West Berlin, placing them in volunteer service positions in the United States and Canada. He served for twenty years as a pastor in The United Methodist Church in Washington DC. Also trained as a pastoral counselor, Greg worked with clergy and others in the practice of leadership skills. He restored old houses and was the cook on a tall ship. His passion for restoration, his love of the sea and his Nova Scotian roots prompted a life-changing move to Canada, where he is now a Landed Immigrant. He lives on McNutt's Island in southwestern Nova Scotia with his wife Anne, who reports on their activities at"

You can order Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (Pottersfield Press) from your local bookstore, or Nimbus Publishing, which is the distributor for Pottersfield Press and ships anywhere, or Chapters/ Indigo, or, soon, the other usual online places (the publication date is April 30). Or ask your library to buy it!

Friday, April 9, 2010

The secret history of spruce

It's amazing to look inside a tree. Of course you can only do it afterwards, if you know what I mean. 
Here you can watch a tree grow from a scrawny sapling, year by year, into the substantial tree it became before Greg cut it down. This tree was a seedling in 1960, more or less.  
Some kind of insect made its home deep inside this tree. A happy insect, I imagine.
And here is the story of how, long ago, two young trees met and fell in love. They probably had a lot in common. Eventually they grew together until it was hard to tell one from the other. But later they split up.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A sort of a garden

The back orchard is a sort of a garden, in the sense that it's sort of enclosed, by the stone walls, except in the places where the sheep and deer have broken them down. In spring the deer stand on the walls to nibble the enticing tips of apple twigs and buds. In late summer and autumn they stand on the walls to reach irresistible apples hanging from a branch. The sheep sometimes climb over the walls when they come into the orchard, or leave it. They use the two entrances as well, but they don't think of stone walls as boundaries.
I do, though. The stone walls are what turn the orchard into a garden, at least in my mind. I'll admit to a romantic turn of mind when it comes to gardens, whereas the deer and sheep are entirely practical about any island space, enclosed or not. Is there something here that we can eat, they think. I have two other gardens where those particular species of animal are not welcome. But this one is different. It's a a peaceable kingdom, of a sort.
When we first came here, the stone walls were not doing their job, and the back orchard had been invaded by wildness.  There were actually spruce trees there (as well as everywhere), grotesque and absurd  and menacing. But now they are all gone. The wild raspberries are gone, too. I love the wild raspberries, and there are some excellent patches I could tell you about, except that they are secret. But it's the contrast between inside and outside that makes a place into a garden. So: no wild raspberries inside the back orchard walls.  Also no bayberry. They have plenty of their own places on the island, just like the spruce.

This rule has lately been extended to the wild pasture rose. The wild pasture rose belongs in wild pastures, or along roadsides, or hidden deep among the bayberry along the shore, where in June you can just glimpse its pink blossoms as you go by.  A glimpse of it is lovely, really quite sufficient. It doesn't need to be stared at.
On the other hand, the principles on which my rule is based are not entirely consistent. The back orchard is a place where wild ferns grow up along the walls, and snakes sun on the rocks.  There are wild stones embedded in the ground. They wear old coverings, of lichen or moss, that are wild, too. You can see sheep and deer droppings everywhere. In early summer there are wildflowers -- white and pink yarrow, and daisies, and clover --  though the sheep enjoy them so much that their moment of flourishing is brief. Of course the birds do not observe any boundaries. Or the bees. These are all wild, all equally at home both inside and outside the garden, like the sheep and the deer. Nevertheless, they are all very welcome inside.
Then there are the daffodils. There is an old lilac. There are the pear and apple trees. They are domestic, garden sorts of things. You understand when you look at them that effort has been made here during the past century and a half. Eventually I would like to plant more daffodils, and a drift of day lilies, since the sheep and deer ignore them both. Maybe another lilac or two. Some roses, maybe even a rambler along a part of the wall that the animals don't use.
The back orchard will never be a domesticated place, but it has its own beauty.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter walkabout

We went looking for an old graveyard yesterday. It seemed like an Easterly thing to do. And there is the vaguest rumour of there being a graveyard, somewhere. Though it is supposedly one with fieldstone markers. So, think about that. Fieldstone markers, two hundred years old, covered with lichen and moss and grass.

Anyway, it's one of our diversions, every so often, to wonder where you would make a graveyard, way back then, and then to go and look for it. Without having the slightest expectation of stumbling upon it or recognizing it if we did. But never mind.
Instead of a graveyard we found some of those really wild sheep, the ones that roam about in the vast southwest quadrant of the island.
We found a sign that somebody had left for somebody else.
And we saw the power of a sea that drags lobster traps off the ocean floor and twists them into strange shapes and tosses them along the cobble beaches;
and carves away the island, bit by bit.