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 30, 2011

teen age graffiti artists at Cape Roseway

Here are a few of the inscriptions you can find up at Cape Roseway Lighthouse. I've added whatever I was able to find about these names, mostly by going to the Vital Statistics at the NSARM, which is a fabulous resource. I think that most of these particular inscriptions were made by students at Alexander Hood Cocken's school. Cocken, the second lighthouse keeper, retired in 1860. So the graffiti artists would have been hanging out at the rocks during recess, chiselling away, before that. A few of their inscriptions are dated.
J. Locke, 1856. The Locke family was very connected to McNutt's Island. In the early nineteenth century at least two inter-related Locke households were on the island, among its very first settlers, when they brought their children for baptism at the Anglican Church in Shelburne. Mostly the Lockes lived around and in nearby Lockeport and Ragged Islands, with easy access to McNutt's Island by water, just as it is today.
Robert Miller was likely a son of The Rev. George Miller (an important Methodist preacher of the era, mostly connected with the church in Halifax) and Alexander Hood Cocken's sister Frances Cocken Miller. He would have been Alexander Hood Cocken's nephew.

John Alexander Fraser Purney was born about 1845, son of a Shelburne merchant and his wife. He married Angela Muir in 1872 and became a physician in Shelburne.
J.B. Vernon.Vernon is a significant name on McNutt's Island. Captain Nathaniel Vernon of Tarleton's Legion bought the old McNutt property at the northern end of the island, as well as other lots around the island. This may be the son of Nathaniel's son, Augustus Vernon.

I haven't found anything about J.T. Morrow, though he certainly did a nice job with his name.
J.Gibbons, 1856. There is a John Gibbons who was born in Sandy Point and was a schoolteacher, married to an Annie Perry, and living at the village of Roseway, on the western shore of Shelburne Harbour directly across the False Passage from McNutt's, in 1864.
Joseph Homer, a sea captain, was born about 1842, and married in Barrington in 1870. If he was a student at Alexander Hood Cocken's school at the lighthouse, he would have inscribed his name in the late 1850s.Tottie is a well-known name in Shelburne, because of Tottie's Store, which remains on Dock Street.

You can find more graffiti here, here, and here. I have always wanted to make a map of the rocks, showing where all the inscriptions are located. But I have not gotten around to it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

very important birds, expertly observed

In yesterday's post I gave you the latest on lichens, from Brad Toms, who is Wildlife Biologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute. Now here are Brad's bird observations from his visit to McNutt's last week:

There were American Robins out at the lighthouse on the lawn and there were Winter Wrens (4 males) singing, scattered along the length of the road to the lighthouse. You might hear their very beautiful rambling and lengthy song while you are outdoors.

Winter Wren
(Brad wrote later that he had sent his observations to Dr. Ian McLaren who was pretty sure that the winter wrens Brad heard were the first arrivals this spring in the province. Go, winter wrens! We've heard them for the last four years, but we had the hardest time identifying them. Greg said they sounded like they were singing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Last summer Sue Abbott finally told us what they were. The robins have been here all winter, though I do believe there are more that arrive with spring.)

Brad's observations continue:

Another interesting sighting of the day was 3 male Harlequin Ducks below the lighthouse point at the in the crashing waves.
Harlequin Duck
This was a new location for sighting these birds whose nearest known large concentrations of wintering adults is Port L'Hebert. A few are seen now and again near Baccaro but this is the first time they have been sighted at Cape Roseway to my knowledge. They're hard to see, but very beautiful, birds if you get the chance to see them before they leave for the Arctic in the next few weeks.

I also noticed your owl post on the blog from last fall. It looks like a Short Eared Owl (listed as a Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act) rather than a Barred Owl.
Short—eared Owl
The clear/whitish under wings and the white circle around the face are the give away features. An exciting sighting!
IMG_7088.JPG (571×571)
Here's a not-very-good photograph I took of the short-eared owl that I thought was a barred owl. You can go here to see more pictures of its visit to the bog last fall.

Thanks to Brad for his excellent reporting from McNutt's Island! I hope in the future that more naturalists will pay attention to this remarkable and overlooked place.

Images of the winter wren, harlequin duck and short-eared owl are from Robie Tuft's Birds of Nova Scotia, courtesy of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

Friday, March 25, 2011

lichen report

There had been rumours swirling around the island about some lichen experts who had visited here a week or so ago to hunt for a rare lichen -- so rare, one person said, that the whole island would be closed down if one was discovered. But nobody knew anything specific. Who were these mysterious lichen hunters? And what had they found? I put it down to one more unsolved McNutt's island mystery.

Then I received an email from Brad Toms, who is a Wildlife Biologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute. Brad told me I could quote him. So, Dear Reader, you are about to hear the lichen report in its entirety. Nova Scotia Island Journal does not monger in rumours! (Except maybe now and then).

Here is Brad's report, which includes the link to his site:

I just saw your blog when I was searching for something else on the internet about McNutts Island. I work for a research cooperative ( and Skipper brought us onto the island last Wednesday to do a little work. We were doing surveys for rare species of lichens on the property owned by the Federal Government near the lighthouse. One of our principals is to share the results from our research so when I saw your blog I thought 'who better to share it with than the people who live nearly full time on the island!'

We didn't find anything of great interest at Cape Roseway but while walking back to Skipper's wharf we found a few interesting species close to the road in the middle of the island. The ones we found were called Peppered Moon Lichen, Powdered Moon Lichen and Foliose Shingle Lichen. None of these are particularly imperiled in the province but they only occur in specific habitats close to the ocean and are rare enough that we noted them (the powdered moon lichen is the rarest of the three). In the places where we found those (wet maple and fir forests) there was a good diversity of what are called "Cyanolichens" (lichens that have cyanobacteria as the partner with fungi instead of algae).
Sticta Fuliginosa.JPG
peppered moon lichen on McNutt's Island (photograph courtesy of Brad Toms)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

spring snow

Just beyond the garden fence, raven is out for his morning stroll. A little spring snow deters him not at all.
A junco perches within the safety of the garden.
Snow gilds the queen anne's lace.
A lovely spring garden.
Junco has flown into the oak tree, everyone's favourite place to sit.

Monday, March 21, 2011

spring visiting

Yesterday was such a social day on the island. In the morning Peter and Sherry came over to the island, and came by for a visit. A dark-eyed junco made a flying house call.
Actually, many song sparrows and juncos spent the day settling in after their long trip back to the island. They twittered about unpacking their bags and checking out the menu at local diner (which is the same menu as last year).
The sheep came by to greet the returning birds.
Blake and Ashley came by. They brought lobster from Blake's dad Skipper, and stayed for a visit. Later Skipper himself came by, with mussels and eggs. We really don't need to go to the store.
At the end of the day Greg sat in his favourite place and appreciated the beginning of spring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

good night moon & hello spring

Last night the full moon would be closer to the earth in its orbit than at any time since 1992. Apparently its orbit is not like a bit of industrial machinery, always doing the same thing over and over.

Everything, from the tilt of the earth's axis to the distance between continents and the speed of the earth's rotation, is always changing. Sometimes, as when tectonic plates shift, changes are dramatic, and we notice them. Most of the time they are infinitesimal, and we don't. Changes continue whether or not we pay them any mind. We are being changed, too, since we are a part of the whole cosmic reality, even if only in a very small way.

This morning Greg took these pictures of the close moon.
It was about to set across the western harbour as the sun began to come up through the forest to the east.
A few minutes later morning had broken, but the earth still felt the moon's quieter power.
Then the last night of winter was over. Today (at 5:21 PM here in Atlantic Time) the sun will cross over the celestial equator, and spring will arrive on McNutt's Island.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

meet your farmer!

It's exciting that our dear friends Mary Morse and Leroy d'Entremont are the current stars of Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture's "Meet Your Farmer" -- a way to highlight the wide range of farming activities in Nova Scotia. Here's the link:'m very glad to see that Nova Scotia island sheep are getting the recognition they deserve, and of course the intrepid shepherds! To read everything about sheep and shepherding on McNutt's Island, go to the label "wild island sheep."
Here's a portrait Greg painted of Leroy looking for his sheep...

Friday, March 18, 2011

early birds, and a fierce March wind

There are two song sparrows getting blown about in the side yard. They arrived the other day, the advance guard. They'll certainly have their pick of the best nesting spots by the time the laggards show up. I bet they're glad they got here first.The wind is fierce today, and cold. Environment Canada is clocking it at 55 km/hr with gusts to 70 km/hr at nearby Baccaro Point. It reminds me of the wild winds that March blew in on, only eighteen days ago.

All in all, an excellent day to stay indoors.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

insects of the sea

Our friends Skipper and Radar dropped by for tea on their way home from lobstering the other day. They brought us our dinner, too! After four years here it's still amazing that we can sit down and eat lobsters as fresh as this. Skipper and Radar say the lobster season hasn't been good, though. The weather even in December -- usually the best month -- was horrible for lobstering, with some major storms. Maybe things will pick up in May, when the waters are warmer. In the meantime, Skipper says "We are a non-profit organization."

Well, especially if they give away the catch before they even get back to their wharf.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

tender apple tree tips

Greg has been pruning the old apple trees. That means there are branches lying on the ground, a feast of swelling buds and tender tips and a dream come true for hungry deer. The First People called March the time of hunger. If animals could speak they would agree, I think. It is too early for the earliest of spring greens, and most of the winter's food sources have been used up. In a few weeks the island will begin to provide new food sources: fern, purslane, dock, dandelion, and buds and tender tips galore, all you can eat.I used an old towel to clean off the window so I could take a picture of the deer browsing the apple branches. The deer saw my towel moving back and forth and stopped, vigilant, to watch. Then raised her leg several times and stamped it, while staring at me.
This is her signal that if the towel becomes aggressive she will defend her turf.
After the towel went meekly away, she walked over to the younger deer -- her offspring, I suppose, though she seems awfully small herself to be a mother.
They continued to eat, though the mother kept an eye out for any more towel incursions.
These two deer do not seem as starved as the deer we saw last March. Last summer was a good long season for island vegetation. The weather was excellent. Leroy had reduced the size of the sheep flock, so the deer were competing with a smaller number of the island's other large herbivore. They probably went into the winter with good reserves. Last March we could count their ribs. But now they seem strong.

Monday, March 14, 2011

unrestored daguerreotype

When we first saw the house in the fall of 2006, there was a small cased daguerreotype sitting on the pump organ. I thought about that old picture quite a lot. When we bought the house it was filled with such things, large and small. But this one photograph drew me back to it over and over. I wondered why it was still here. Elizabeth Hyde had once written that when she bought the house in 1961 many of the things inside it were already here. She wrote that it was as if the previous owners had simply gotten up and left one day, leaving their things behind. Could this photograph have been one of those things? Could it have actually been here since the house was built? The thought seemed both incredible and plausible, and it's odd, when you think about it, that a thought could be both.

But then after we moved in, Elizabeth's daughter told us that Elizabeth had actually bought most of the things that were now in the house at auctions here and there, over the years. But Elizabeth's daughter was just a small child when Elizabeth first moved in. So there really wasn't any way to know if this old photograph -- or any of the other stuff -- had already been here. Though I do think that the families who lived here before, first the Perrys, then the Gouldens, and last the Demings, would have taken their things with them when they left the island. It would seem so un-Nova Scotian to just leave things behind like that. But I couldn't know, really, whether the photograph had been a part of the house for a long time, or not.

If the daguerreotype had been here, then it could have been from the Perry family. William and his father Jonathan built this house in the mid-nineteenth century, and well before that the Perrys lived in an earlier house, down below the lower apple orchard, a place that's a ruined rock foundation now. There were several Perry daughters. Could these have been two of them? And yet, the styles in the photograph are from a generation earlier. The young women I was thinking of wouldn't have worn their hair like this, not in the late nineteenth century. It seemed more likely that Elizabeth had bought the photographs in some dusty antique store somewhere. And now they were here, two young women, sisters, maybe twins, from who knew where, gazing out at me. But they could not speak, because nobody knew who they were.

During our first year here I was beginning to research the history of the house and learn about the Perry family and Nova Scotia life in general in the time when the house was built. I returned to the picture over and over. It had such a hold on me. Could it be a window into the very world I was learning about? It was a mystery I wouldn't be able to resolve. But I did write a poem.

Unrestored Daguerreotype

Two young women are identically dressed in mourning.
They seem not interested in having their picture taken
and sit looking as if they'd rather be someplace else.
Their hair is curled in complicated ringlets
likely out of style by then
in Boston and Halifax and other centres of fashion.
The someplace else could be home again --
this wild fir-tipped island,
this house where they grew up,
a Nova Scotia fisherman's daughters.

The picture sits here still, slowly dissolving into its elements.
Their caught faces float pale on the surface glass
while all dark detail of hair and dresses and eyes has slipped away
to reveal a stippled disintegrating painted black background
layered underneath.
Nebulae wink in the folds of their sleeves,
comets arc through their heads
and if you look closely into their eyes you can see all the way to
the vast swirling night sky that reels above this place forever.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


This flock of sheep comes by our house when they feel like it. Today was one of those days.There are about twenty of them, though the numbers mysteriously vary a bit from time to time. They are the cove flock that stays along the point and the ruins south of the point, and comes up along the shore of the cove.

There are two other flocks. The horseshoe flock stays up north in the woods and marsh, and they are the wildest and the baddest or shyest, depending on how you look at it. They are also the smallest flock. The lighthouse flock is the biggest group, very mainstream in its thinking. The cove flock is, of course, the best of the three from our point of view. But each flock has its good points, I'm sure.
They are finding something to nibble on amongst all this winterized grass.
This is a yearling, which is called a hogget. Leroy says the rams do not impregnate hoggets. I suppose the hoggets do not yet ovulate or give off hormone scents.You can certainly see the effect of having The Major on the island for the past two years. There are many more young sheep with Scottish Blackface characteristics.
Their lovely long wool must be a huge help in withstanding the harshness of winter. Which may possibly be gradually coming to a close, ever so slightly, maybe.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

daughters of the province, though gone away

Is Elizabeth Bishop a Nova Scotia poet? She spent formative time here, with her maternal grandparents. But mostly she lived around: in Massachusetts and the Florida Keys and Brazil, among other places. She was a bit of a vagabond, and not always by her own choice. Still, Nova Scotia was a deep well for Bishop, and she returned to drink from it over and over.

Howard Norman is another writer associated with Nova Scotia, although I don't think he has ever lived here for any length of time. He now lives in the Washington DC area and teaches at The University of Maryland. Much of his fiction has been set in Nova Scotia, though. Even though he's not from around here, the province has taken hold of him. He, too, drinks from this well.

His most recent book, What is Left the Daughter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2010), is set in Halifax and in the Minas Basin area, near Bishop's nesting ground, Great Village. It's a connection he lightly touches with his description of the Esso station in Great Village and passing reference to a local poet.

What is Left the Daughter is a lyrical tale composed within the framework of looming war with Germany, filtered through local senses. A set of quiet lives, mostly interwoven at the village level, suddenly take a hard turn into the extreme. The rest is consequences, and memory. His artfully composed story evokes a sense of village life in Nova Scotia in the 1930s and 1940s, and the grim teeming chaos of Halifax during the war years. The tone is mostly regret, which seeps through the pages like grey fog.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

synchronized flight

A flock of bohemian waxwings swooped along the shore the other day, checking out the bayberry situation. These birds actually breed in northwest Canada. But in winter they like to take in the more moderate climes, and usually include Nova Scotia on their circuit. Nova Scotia is their Florida!

It's hard to tell bohemian waxwings from cedar waxwings, except that apparently if I'm seeing waxwings at the end of February I'm seeing bohemians and not cedars.

I barely had a chance to wave hello before they were off and away to visit some other part of Nova Scotia. They swirled from one part of the bayberry bramble to another, up into the swamp maple that's near the shore, and then -- all at once and all together -- came straight up over the bog into the oak tree. When they flew off again (which they did, immediately) they were a breath-taking sight: a hundred tails, a hundred horizontal bands of bright yellow. Then they were gone.

I couldn't take their picture but I knew somebody who had: Ronnie Dentremont in Pubnico, along the shore not far from here, earlier in the winter. Ronnie kindly gave me permission to use some of his truly amazing pictures. You can see more of his bohemian waxwing photos here and here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

one sunny day

A few warm days will melt the ice that rings the island. But here's how the cove shore looked a couple of days ago.
I know you cannot see these sheep out on the point, at least without a magnifying glass. But there are about twenty of them out there, eating their favourite food, kelp.
Another view of the point and the cove, and the old skiff.

Friday, March 4, 2011

island life continues, and we resume our place within it

We have been home for a week or so. At first it seemed as if we never left, though I'm almost certain we did, a few days before Christmas. Here sits the house, there the stone walls, the apple trees, the stacked wood, all pretty much where we left them.

But there have been changes. The mice came out to play. Three of them were killed in the traps we had cunningly, murderously set along the kitchen baseboards. So, traps sprang shut. On the window sills, flies expired of old age or despair, their tiny legs sticking up in the air. One small shrew fell down the stairs and died on the bottom step. The shrews do that now and then, and always in the same way, dropping from some unknown place and landing on the last stair, a fatal lack of attentiveness or memory that they make over and over, from generation to generation. We came home to this assortment of small corpses, evidence that time had passed.

Each autumn as the weather turns cold again, the deer mice come back into the innards of the house. They arrive through their secret passages, the ones that we will never close up, no matter how alert or ingenious or dedicated we are. And from there, their safe places, at night, while we are asleep upstairs, they enter the kitchen. Where we have set out mouse traps, baited with cheese. They take the bait, or some of them do. And then in the morning we find them dead.

While we were away the house was cold, but still, for the island's most permanent inhabitants, a nice enough place to spend the winter. Now that we have returned, the sad but inevitable dance -- dance of cheese or death --resumes, exactly where it left off.

We do not hate the mice. They are beautiful and charming animals. If only they didn't want to live inside the house, but of course they do want to live here in this warmly crumby place. And there's no co-existing, no compromise that would suit both parties. So, with regret, we kill them off, one by one. And with determination or hopefulness or filial piety, their children and their grandchildren keep coming back to this fabled paradise, the place they hold dear in their collective memory, our kitchen.

It was about this time a couple of years ago, in the dregs of winter, when there's hardly anything left out there to eat, that we began an understanding with the ravens. It was they who thought of it first, swooping closer to the house than we'd ever seen them do before, stalking and preening around in the side yard. Before, they had mostly perched in the spruce trees south of the house, or in the lower orchard apple trees, or flapped in threes and sevens into the dead forest along the shore where the owl lives. They are birds of great size and dignity, and we were surprised to see them coming so close.
On the nights when we ate meat --lamb or venison or mutton, all from the island --we were then in the habit of putting the bones and scraps outside on a bench until the next day, when I would carry them down to the wharf and drop them into the water, for the gulls. One morning Greg saw a raven fly up off the bench. He had torn open the plastic bag and taken the scraps. Then we began to lay the left-overs on the cement platform of the solar tracker: an offering to the ravens. And soon we added the morning's mouse corpse to the collection. The ravens took it all, lifting into flight with their claws firmly holding these gifts.

Now we are home again. Outside, snows have come and gone, fallen and lain and melted. Rain. Ice. Wind. Winter in its relentless power. Of all that I can only guess, like someone with amnesia trying to puzzle this gap back together again in my mind. I get the general picture but I have missed all the detail.

A raven has noticed that we are home, and walks, gravely, like an old man, along the picket fence near the house. It is he who is the keeper of seasons past. He remembers how long ago, before Christmas, we set out meat scraps for him, and the delectable fresh corpses of mice. He hopes to remind us of our old charitable impulses, to reawaken our consciences and stir our memories, to patch December to March, and move on.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I looked up the definition of maroon this morning. The first definition doesn't apply to us, since it requires our having been captured by buccaneers and set ashore as punishment. But here's the second definition: to isolate as if on a desolate island. Yep, that's us. We haven't been able to leave the island for a week now, and it looks as if we won't be able to leave for another week, or even longer. And what an adventure it is!

Greg called Laura at Fort Point Fisheries to ask about Gunning Cove the other day. "Oh, yes, it's iced up," she told him. "It doesn't look too thick out there, but no boats are going out." We knew no boats had gone out for the past week or so. It has been too windy and the waves too high even for lobstermen. This isn't really their time of year anyway. Even though the official lobster season runs from the beginning of December to the end of May, most lobster boats take a break during the season when the weather is at its fiercest. It's too dangerous out there now. They'll start going out again in late April, and fish until the season comes to a close at the end of May. With ice covering the waters of Gunning Cove, and no bigger boats going in and out to break it up, Greg would not risk trying to take our little Chopper over there.

Fortunately, Greg is a serious student of weather forecasting. So he can tell me exactly what Environment Canada is predicting for the next week. It goes something like this: cold, cold, cold, wind, wind, wind, wind. Here's a little lesson I never knew until I lived here: warmth and wind go together. So does rain, but we don't care about rain. It's wind that makes the difference, and, in the winter, ice. We are not talking about light breezes when we say wind. Greg won't take little Chopper out into the harbour when the wind is blowing at 25 kilometres per hour, and these days the wind is well above that level. Right now the wind is strong and the cold is biting. And Greg says it's about to get a whole lot colder.

So, maybe he can go in next Wednesday. By then there will have been a string of warmer and windier days, maybe enough to melt the ice in Gunning Cove. On that day the wind is supposed to die down and it's supposed to get colder again, but if the ice has melted by then, there should be enough time for him to go into town and run all our errands and get home again. Or not.

The inconveniences are not that great. We have run out of butter and cheese and milk and -- horrors -- okay, this one is serious -- we are about to run out of coffee. We are running out of vegetable oil but, as people who have our priorities straight, we do have a big stock of olive oil. Greg is sad that he's almost out of garlic. But the freezer contains enough food -- green beans, moose meat, lamb, mutton, chard, chanterelles, raspberries, dried apples, et cetera -- for us to dine well into eternity or until the freezer dies, whichever comes first. And we have plenty of Greg's home-made beer and hard cider in the cellar.
We can't return or borrow books at the library but -- hooray! -- the library now offers digital downloads. So far I've been able to download and read John Casey's glorious new novel, Compass Rose (Random House Canada, 2010), Rebecca Skloot's amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown Publishers 2010), and Lewis Desoto's Emily Carr, a title in a lovely if somewhat perplexing series called Extraordinary Canadians and published by The Penguin Group. The library's online services were down for three days this week but they are up and running again and I shall go a-browsing. Marooned, but with digital library borrowing: pretty good.

With all this enforced indoor time we have both been carrying on with our various writing projects. We keep the wood stove blazing. Greg devotes a great deal of time and ingenuity to the pursuit of asymmetrical warfare against mice. And I cleaned the stove. So, you see, it's fine, really (though not for the mice). An adventure! Except for the coffee.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

making a change

Maybe, dear reader, you've noticed a change. The photograph on the banner is different. When I started this blog in the fall of 2008 I used an evocative image of the lighthouse on a slightly foggy day. It was beautiful, and said as much about life on the island as one picture can say. But when Greg was working with Pottersfield Press on his book, that lighthouse picture (which he had taken) came up the clear winner for the cover. It belonged there.

Meanwhile, over in blog land, it's been time for a change. This online journal has been underway for almost two and a half years, so it's ancient in blog years, which are, I bet, similar to dog years. Anything this incredibly old can use a fresh look. I looked through my cache of pictures and chose the picture that's now on the banner, which was taken in June 2010. Since it includes stone walls, forest, apple tree, mysterious hanging wooden pulley, ferns, fog, an edge of my clothesline and one adorable beast, what more could I ask for?

I hope you like this new look.