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, September 29, 2010

the mercy of the wind

Our high-tech wind turbine and the solar tracker work together, and that's good. Because some days we have wind and no sun, and other days we have sun and no wind. On really glorious days we have both. That's when we turn on all sorts of energy-sucking rigs: the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the crock pot, the little hot water heater. We have a new dehydrator, for drying apples. But we can only use it on sunny and windy days, when our energy production is high. And we have a second freezer now, for freezing all that fresh apple cider -- about fifty gallons. It's an old freezer and even though it works well it adds to our energy load.

If we have a string of cloudy and windless days, the batteries that store all the energy lose their charge. Down, down, down they slide, while we turn off lights and computers. We do have a back-up for times when the batteries get too low: a ten thousand watt propane generator sits on a concrete pad behind the battery shed. The generator goes on automatically when the system calls for it. We don't let it run for very long though, since it uses up propane. We hear its motor kick on, even in the middle of the night, and one of us goes out to the shed and re-sets everything. By then the generator has kicked up the charge in the batteries at least enough to keep them going for a while.

A string of six propane tanks, strung together by copper gas lines, sits in the former outhouse, a shed next to the shed that houses the batteries and all the fancy blinking lights for the whole business. There's no measuring device for the propane tanks, an odd gap in all this technology. The only way you can tell how much propane is left in those tanks is to look for a line of condensation along the outside of the tanks. It should tell you where the level of your propane is. But you need to be looking for that condensation on a wet day. Because on a dry day you can't see it.

Yesterday we ran out of propane. But that was okay because Greg had an extra tank, which he attached to the end of the string of tanks, thus giving us a little lee-way until he could go into town to get the tanks re-filled. But then the stove ran out of propane too. The stove has been very much in use for blanching beans and chard etc, and canning grape jam and apple sauce etc. So then Greg took the one full tank back off the string of tanks in the shed and replaced the empty tank at the stove. So now, no propane back up for the generator until Saturday, when he can go into town. But he can certainly carry on with the apple tarts and apple jelly and apple chutney.

There is no sun expected here until Sunday, and today is Wednesday. According to the weather reports it'll be mostly rain between now and then. If the charge on the batteries goes too low we'll just watch everything go off. Then there will be no running water or flushing toilet or freezer keeping everything from the garden frozen or computers bringing us the world at our fingertips or lights. For the next few days we are living at the mercy of the wind.

These are hardly dire conditions, though. After all, we do have a back-up back-up system: an outhouse, and oil lamps, and an old well we can drop a bucket into, and little rainy-day projects that don't require electricity, like re-gluing broken plates and organizing closets. We do have books.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

gifts from the sea (continued)

Dylan and Skipper came by to show us what they had found washed up on the shore. They brought me an unusually dark purple sea urchin for my collection.
They found a bounty of buckets, buoys and lines. You never know when you'll need more.
They found Charlie Brown.
An excellent coffee mug from a very high class place down the shore beyond Lockeport.
A perfectly useful matched pair of lobster claws, size extra large.
With his handy new claws, Dylan is demonstrating the proper use of a chest freezer which is also a recycled item, new to us, but which was not found on the beach. That would be another story, really. Maybe Greg will tell it in his next book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

grape harvest

Elizabeth Hyde planted our grape vine, long ago: a concord, I think. After Elizabeth died the house and the land more or less went to sleep, but those vines continued to grow along the ground up where she had her big vegetable garden. Skipper, who always kept an eye on things, built a wooden fence around them to keep the sheep and deer from plundering them. So when we first arrived, the vines lay tangled and forlorn inside and over the remains of a weather-beaten wooden fence.

After our first year we took down that old fence and included the vines inside the new vegetable garden. Ambitiously, Greg built an arbour for the grapes. We pruned them and trained them, sort of. But there was only so much we could do besides tearing out the single huge trunk and starting over. Which I wasn't that interested in. The arbour was pretty enough in the garden's second summer, with its vines growing this way and that and its translucent leafy canopy. Last year we got maybe a cup of grapes, and Greg made one little jar of grape jam. I figured we had built the arbour for the benefit of our bird friends, and I left it at that.

This year I paid no attention to the grape arbour. As summer went on some vines got too long and started hitting me in the face as I walked into the garden, so I whacked them off. But that was as far as any pruning went. Gradually, though, I started noticing that there were clusters of grapes forming here and there. Oh well, I thought, the birds will be happy this year. I did not get my hopes up. I barely looked at the arbour. After all, I had collards to consider, and chard, and beans. Important things.
Quietly, behind my back, the grapes grew.
This past week was apple harvesting time around here. The big-time action was all in the apple trees, but in the middle of the week Greg mentioned that he thought the grapes were ready to harvest, too.
So I picked the grapes, about four and a half gallons once I took them off their stems.

Though we should have been putting two and two together all along, the bounty of the grape arbour caught us off guard. I had thought that the birds would swoop in at the last and stage a gigantic avian grape-fest, and that whatever we got would be an afterthought, their leftovers. But now instead we had oh-so-much of a good thing, requiring immediate attention. The rushing torrent of apple momentum would have to wait.

Jam was what we aspired to, not merely jelly. Not something smooth and simple and jelly-like, but something dense, more complex. But it turns out that jam -- as opposed to jelly -- is complicated to make. There are many time-consuming steps. These are the ones I did: taking the grapes off the stems, then separating the pulp from the skin of each and every grape. So that you end up with a pot of pulp, called must, and a separate bowl of skins. As far as I know there is no machine for doing this, or at least not at our house.

After that I turned everything over to Greg. I can't even tell you how many steps came next, since I stayed out of the kitchen. There were many, many steps, involving rarely-used and mysterious equipment and supplies. All evening, until midnight, the kitchen was filled with the purple aroma of grapes and the reading out loud of snippets from various recipes pulled off the Internet, which sounded like nothing so much as the muttering of charms and spells.
This morning I came downstairs to discover magic jars of grape jam, more than I can count, a rich dark colour amidst the brightness of the apple harvest.

Friday, September 24, 2010

visit from a northern harrier

A group of students and teachers from the Learning Centre in nearby Barrington Passage came on the island today. As we were all outside making apple cider, we spied an amazing hawk. Well, she would have been hard to ignore. She swooped and soared among the bayberry and dived down into the bog and generally put on a riveting demonstration of hunting skills. (Though as far as we could see no animals were harmed in this show.)Then she posed for a while on an old overturned tree trunk. Though this picture is distant, you can see her owl-like face, I hope.
I'm pretty sure this is a female northern harrier. The hens were clucking and pecking in the front yard, not far away, oblivious as usual. But our visitor seemed to have other fish to fry.
She flew off, and over the lower orchard,
and then along the shore into the skeleton forest.
In England the northern harrier is called a hen hawk. I'm glad the chickens didn't know that.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

remembering a hummingbird

This place where we live is a small patch that for a couple of centuries now people have been making into their own. Its house, stone walls, crumbled cellars, apple trees, wells and old fields are evidence of the long-ago work of domesticating a bit of acreage on an island filled with bogs and rocks and forest and surrounded by the sea. It's a project we embrace, most days.

But around and beneath and above and even within this place lies another, vaster place, which is wildness. The two places live side by side and intermingled. Sometimes that other country, that wild place, is distant and impossible to discover, and sometimes it is very near. Sometimes it encroaches. Sometimes it brushes by, lighter than a feather.

This summer we hung up a hummingbird feeder for the first time. We delighted all summer in watching the frequent visits of two female hummingbirds to the feeder -- so frequent that, if you just stood for a few minutes at the front door, you would see them there, all day, every day, without fail. Because they became so familiar I thought I was getting to know them pretty well.

But then, as summer was coming to an end, I met that young hummingbird up in the vegetable garden. At first, when I saw him sitting so still for several minutes at a time, I didn't have enough to go on. It didn't fit with what I had seen near the feeder. So I thought he might be sick or dying. Why was he allowing me to get so close? I began to spin a sort of hummingbird tragedy in my mind: the little bird, somehow left behind or blown off course as his relatives all flew away across the Gulf of Maine, now lonely and afraid and stranded in the vegetable garden. It's a pretty good story, and it could be true.

Or not. It could be that he was merely on his way, alone or more or less along with others, and had stopped to rest for a few hours before moving on. The day I saw him was both sunny and windy, not a good day for flying east against a strong westerly wind, but not a bad day for being close to the ground in a relatively protected sunny garden. It's possible that he was feeling perfectly confident and able to take care of himself, within the limits of being a very small bird with a great distance yet to travel. I did not need to invent pathos where none was required, there being a big enough supply of tragedy in the world already.

Until my tutorial in the vegetable garden, I had not known that hummingbirds sit for long periods of time, stalk their prey, blink, swallow, and unroll their amazing tongues, a skill I associated only with frogs and snakes. He was, though young, an excellent teacher.

But I still don't understand what I saw that day: where he came from and where he was going and why he had come to the garden. I expect there are interpretations that I even don't know enough to consider. I only know that for an hour he became a small portal into the vast wildness that surrounds us.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

last summer sky

Here are a few pictures Greg took of yesterday's evening sky.

Monday, September 20, 2010

fancy pants caterpillars

There are some mighty fancy caterpillars that live around here. This one was up in the vegetable garden the other day, blissfully chomping his way through the salad bar.
He's so pretty. But eventually he metamorphoses into an easily-overlooked little moth called the spotted tussock moth (lophocampa maculata).
Same with this guy, who I noticed near our front door. The oak tree is right there, so he may have come down from it. I sort of harassed him, actually, since he wasn't much into photography.
I was able to catch his annoyed expression before I left him alone, which was, really, all he asked. He'll become a banded tussock moth, also called a pale tiger moth or a pale tussock moth. You can't have too many names! His official name is halysidota tessellaris.

I would think that a fancy caterpillar ought to result in something equally fancy once it emerges from its cocoon. But both these caterpillars are much prettier and more striking in this stage of their lives than later, when they turn into little brownish moths with patterns so subtle as to be noticed only by the most devoted mothologist. A case of peaking early, maybe.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

remembering our house renovation

The September 2010 issue of The Griffin, Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia's quarterly, has the second part of my story about our house. You can read it here. You can also download the June 2010 issue, which contained the first part of the article. It's terrific to have The Griffin delivered via Internet. If you want to keep up with Nova Scotia historic preservation, you can subscribe to The Griffin and you will receive email notification when each new issue is available for downloading.
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Thursday, September 16, 2010

a young hummingbird in the vegetable garden

This bird has been around in the garden, and for some reason today my presence had very little effect on him. After I watched him for a while and saw how still he was being, I ootched closer and closer.
Every once in a while he would take off to do his hummingbird thing.
Like tiny angel wings. If you accept that these are fiercely aggressive tiny angels.
He was pretty much sticking to the nasturtiums, which I'm glad I have kept picking so there are still fresh blooms.
You can tell when he's planning a move because his feathers ruffle. I was close enough to watch his eye-lids blinking and his throat swallowing.
By the time I got these pictures I was lying on my stomach in the garden path. It was very comfortable. I watched him for nearly an hour and was forced to rearrange the rest of the day's schedule because of it. I may never catch up.
I was close enough to watch his long tongue flick out to capture insects. But I never caught it on the camera.
Got this, though. He's after that bee. Would he really want a bee?
Samurai hummingbird.
Yes, he really wants that bee. Down his throat. Well, maybe once.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

the bog beyond the yard

We have a front yard, which probably should not be called anything so grand as a lawn. It is randomly studded with huge half-submerged boulders and equally randomly cropped by the sheep. When, for reasons known only to them, the flock's visits become increasingly random, as they did this summer -- in fact downright unreliable, though who are we to complain -- then the yard is mowed by Greg, with his push gas-powered mower, which is not designed for boulders and magically appearing stumps.
Just beyond the yard the ground dips into a low swath of bog, before it rises again at the lower orchard. Where the yard ends wildness begins. Like all the island's bogs, it is filled with soft mossy places, little streams and pools where you least expect them, deadfall lying in wait to trip you up, ferns, and grasses. It is criss-crossed with narrow deer paths. The bog is a good hiding place for the deer, easy for them to travel through without being noticed.
There are several varieties of berry-producing bushes in the bog.
Here is some sort of holly -- I think winterberry (Ilex verticillata) but I'm not sure.
And I think this sort is different from the first two. I think it is Indian Pear, which is also called shadbush or eastern serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).
Its berries change colour from creamy white to pink to deep cranberry to dark inky purple. I don't know whether it is edible for the likes of us.
Here is bayberry, beloved by the warblers. Well, I expect the birds love all these berries.
And here are wild rose hips, just beginning to turn from orange toward dark crimson. In a few weeks the bog will be an Impressionist landscape of bronze and copper and red and mossy green and grey, with occasional dabs of goldenrod and blue aster.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

more faces from the past

Here's another photograph from the island in days gone by. Melinda and Arthur Snow lived in what is called the Hemeon house, or Louie's, and which was built by Benjamin McNutt in the 1760s. It was the oldest house on the island until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1990s. Like most of the men who lived on the island, Arthur was a fisherman. He was born in 1862, and his wife Melinda Dexter was a year younger than he. They married in 1889, when he was 26 and she was 25.

We don't know exactly when they moved to the island after their marriage. They weren't listed among the island's residents in the 1891 census, but they were living here by 1901, along with their children Bertha, Dexter, Mary, Samuel, and Mabel. When the census was taken a decade later in 1911 they had seven children living at home, including three additional daughters: Bernice, Annie and Ruby. By then their oldest child, Bertha, had married James Goulden and begun married life in our house.

According to their death certificates, Arthur Snow died in 1942 at age 79. Melinda died two years later at age 81. They both were still living on McNutt's Island when they died, near daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. For nearly half a century they had been a central part of the island's life.

This photograph was taken just across the path from their house in a field that is still recognizable, although it is now overgrown.

Thanks to both Bernice Smith and Dan Goulden for sharing this photograph. Other sources are the 1891, 1901 and 1911 censuses, and vital statistics at NSARM.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

lighthouse on the rocks

Cape Roseway Light stands atop a promontory of dramatic rocks.
Climbing on them is great fun.
Gigantic seams of quartzite run through them.
It's hard to imagine the powerful forces that have created these angles.
Our friend Tom thinks these are Greater Scaup. But Hazel and John, birders from Ontario, had a contrary view. Common Eider, they said, moulting.
Nope, says Leroy d'Entremont, who owns and manages the island sheep. They are locally called coot, and they're a kind of scaup. I give Leroy the final word.
To the east lies Jordan Bay.
Tide pools reflect the sky.
The Cape Roseway sky is often filled with wonder.
And it's always changing.
To the west lie fishing banks and the Gulf of Maine.