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This old house

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonAlong the shore where the highway makes a gentle s-curve as it dips and crosses the brook, there stood an imposing house with steeply pitched roof, gingerbread trim and wide shady veranda. It was the envy of all the farmhouses around, for none of them had such a grand polished maple staircase, or chandelier in the front parlour, or front door adorned with a ruby red and deep cobalt blue stained glass window.

This grand old house knew what it was to be a house. Its roof was strong and straight. It had plenty of windows with a view. The deep cellar could be filled with tons of potatoes, and its foundation of hand-hewn sandstone blocks never budged. A hand pump stood conveniently outside the back door, and across the yard at a suitable distance a huge hip-roofed barn completed the picture of prosperity. For more than a hundred years, through gales, torrential rains and gentle earthquakes, the old house stood straight and tall. Fearless.

Imagine, then, what happens to such a place when the owners are gone for good and no one notices the bits of asphalt shingles scattered on the lawn after a gale. Then a door blows open and uninvited guests (mice and squirrels) pay a call and decide to stay. How quickly and effortlessly nature retakes the places that humans so painstakingly created.

Year after year we have watched this proud old house grow tired and humble. Posts slipped and the veranda began to sag. The back porch—once full of boots and other trappings of farm life—fell away. Enterprising youths set fire to the kitchen. Someone removed the front door, stained glass window and all. Then sometime last summer, one fine day with nothing at all apparently going on, the foundation cracked and the house fell into the cellar. Just like that. It ceased being a proper house, and seeing it all tipped over felt something like finding a porpoise—or a thousand-pound turtle—washed up on shore: it wasn’t supposed to happen.

Things that aren’t supposed to happen do happen. Take that fierce storm in November when the wind roared across the Island like an out-of-control freight train. That wasn’t supposed to happen either. It was a shock being without electricity for so long—it was almost like seeing that old house tilted into its cellar.

But that storm did remind us of what it is to be human, and what we really need for survival: water, food, light, warmth—and company. Someone to keep an eye on us. Offer opinions. Lend a hand. Look up at the roof for missing shingles.

Fortunately we have plenty of neighbors who are always ready to do just that. As always, Christmas in the Cove has been filled with folks going out of their way to raise money for worthwhile causes, to feed and entertain one another, to keep things going. Our foundation holds! Long may it continue. Happy New Year!

Hold fast

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonOne memorable fall day when I was in grade school, my teacher Mrs. Bowden handed each of us a sheet of paper filled with leaves (cranked out on a Gestetner—remember the delicious smell of fresh blue ink?) and we were instructed to color them red and orange. What? Alberta had poplar and birch trees and everyone knew that their leaves turned yellow.

Mrs. Bowden said the strange-shaped leaves on the handout were maple leaves and they grew Out East, and that we should just get colouring. Once we were done she taped our red and orange leaves all around the classroom. How gorgeous they were! How rich! I felt like I had been transported into a magic kingdom.

Now I live in that magic kingdom. Walking to the Cove one late autumn afternoon with red maple leaves falling silently about us, carpeting the ground in amber and crimson, I wondered once again how I deserved such splendor. The setting sun cast golden highlights on every branch and twig, the air was soft and warm, and clouds raced across the sky in an air show just for us.

The tide being out, we walked around the point to “the shore” where debris washes up after a storm, and sure enough, mountains of seaweed, rocks and shells had been neatly rolled up by the high tides. We picked our way gingerly along the shoreline, for the sandstone was black and slippery with algae. I was about to step onto a dry red rock when I noticed some glistening orange-brown organisms growing out of it. I bent down to take a closer look and realized that these decorative swellings were “holdfasts” or footings of rockweeds that had been growing along our coast.

Rockweeds are descendents of some of earth’s most ancient plants. Rachel Carson writes: “[Rockweeds] may have been the first of the sea plants to colonize the shore. They learned to adjust themselves to alternating periods of submersion and exposure on ancient coastlines swept by strong tides; they came as close to a land existence as they could without actually leaving the tidal zone.” (p. 58, The Rocky Coast, 1955.)

Red maple leaves, rockweed holdfasts, ancient coastlines: we are surrounded by prehistoric rhythms, patterns and miracles that rule our lives even when we are blissfully unaware of them. And now, following rhythms that have been ours from birth we enter a month of festivity. We celebrate HANNUKAH with its candles and dreidels; CHRISTMAS with its cookies and presents; the SOLSTICE when the North Pole starts tilting back towards the sun; followed by NEW YEAR’S DAY when the calendar proclaims the commencement of 365 days with the possibility of new things happening—although we hope life will reliably chug along in the same good old way.

It’s hard to break loose from these rhythms even if we wanted to, and why would we want to? Hold fast to this wonderful season of friendship and miracles. If rockweeds can do it, so can we. 

Our little whale

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonYou never know how a day is going to unfold. You think you do, but you don’t.

One morning after a heavy rain we went to the woods to see if a new crop of chanterelles had appeared. Sure enough, dozens of golden Cantharellus cibarius were proudly pushing their way up through the mossy forest floor. All perfectly clean, no slugs lurking underneath. Yay! Snip snip snip.

Our plans for the day being indeterminate, we decided to slip down to the shore and see if anything new was happening. The tide was out, the beach was bare, everything was calm and quiet… but what the heck? A large sea creature lay on the rocks—sleeping? No, absolutely dead. In perfect condition except for one eye plucked out by crow or gull. Flies buzzed around inquisitively as if saying: Now what do we have here?

It wasn’t a seal (we see them all the time), and it wasn’t a shark (its skin was slippery both ways: shark skin is smooth one way, sharp and unfriendly the other.) Here’s what we observed: white belly, silver-grey back; one dorsal fin, two flukes; stub nose, small mouth with Mona Lisa smile; eyes parallel to ends of mouth; blowhole indicating air-breathing mammal; more than a metre long; about the weight of a chunky adult human.

Could it be a dolphin? Hmm. Whatever it was, it deserved to be studied. We hurried home and called Fish and Wildlife, and an officer told us he’d come right out: “But first, would you go back and cover the animal?” Of course. “From your description of the head,” he continued, “it sounds like a porpoise. Dolphins have a beaky nose. We don’t see a lot of porpoises on PEI but they show up occasionally. They’re our smallest whales.” A whale! On our shore!

I took an old blue tarp and biked back with camera and notebook. Took a few shots of the porpoise, then sat by my new friend and sketched him. (Male: no nipples.) Opened his mouth and looked at his tiny teeth. Held his tail between my hands. Examined the flap of skin that covered his blowhole (nostril). Rubbed his smooth glossy skin. He smelled so fresh and sweet. It was obvious that he been alive just a few hours ago, his heart pumping red blood through his warm body, his brain perhaps making plans for the day. Why had he died? Was he sick? Maybe he was lonely and depressed or just wanted to get away from the crowd and think things over, and got caught by the tide.

Neither the little whale nor I ever imagined that this is how our day would unfold.

I rolled him onto the old tarp, tucked him in, and biked back to the road to wave down the men from Fish and Wildlife. It’s amazing the things that can happen when you’re not even looking. You go down over the bank and find that a whale has landed on your shore.

The St. Lawrence

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonWe lean against the rails as the Island slips by. Souris, Little Harbour, Basin Head, South Lake, East Point Lighthouse… until the Hermanville wind turbines sink below the horizon and we are alone with our ferry and the open sea.

We are en route to Montréal, by water. First north to the Magdalen Islands/les Îles de la Madeleine; change ships and head west to the Gaspé peninsula; then sail on up the St. Lawrence River past—well, past everything—to Montréal. The whole time we will be floating on the same water that flows in and out of the Cove every day.

The Magdalen Islands CTMA ferry has lounges with reclining seats, a pub with a sing-along, and a cafeteria that serves sugar pie. After four delightful hours someone spots the immense rock of Entry Island rising from the deep, and everyone heads outside to stare at gannets (white cliff-dwelling birds with long black-tipped wings) as they plummet into the sea in search of mackerel and capelin. Another hour and we’re there.

One day is not enough on the Magdalen Islands, but we’ll come again. Now we have a cruise ship to catch! It seems impossible that this group of small islands could have its own cruise ship line, yet once a week all summer long the luxurious CTMA “Vacancier” sails back and forth between Montréal and Cap-aux-meules, carrying 400 passengers and 100 crewmembers, plus vehicles and cargo. Most passengers are Québécois, but there are a few anglais such as ourselves and we all feel perfectly welcome.

On board Le Vacancier no effort is spared to entertain and feed us; the bedrooms are immaculate; there is a cinema, a gym, a hair salon… but the main attraction is the St. Lawrence itself. We learn that the gulf is like a huge lake with two small outlets to the Atlantic Ocean. The river is salty and tidal upriver as far as Tadoussac (we glimpse the fins of two whales), and the lighter freshwater starts to mix with the heavier saltwater in visible stripes of blue and green at Ile d’Orléans (famous for strawberries). At Québec City the river narrows for the first time: historically, whoever possessed this point of land controlled the river. Herring was once so plentiful in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that “you could almost cut the water.” The Magdalen Islands employed 2000 workers in the smoked herring industry. The town of Gaspé, with nine consulates, was as important as Boston or New York, and shipped ten millions pounds of cod overseas annually…

On our last night we slip past the twinkling lights of Trois-Rivières, and follow the narrow channel through Lac Saint-Pierre, taking on pilots as needed. At daybreak we pass under the Jacques Cartier Bridge, coast past Habitat for Humanity, and ease into our berth near the Five Roses flour silos.

The day is golden and fresh, full of possibilities. We have arrived at Montréal, from Prince Edward Island, by water.


The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt’s been a long dry summer. Leaves are crispy and brown around the edges, slugs have gone into hiding, and mice are moving into basements to sip droplets of condensation from water pipes. 

Summer cottages at the Cove feel more like saunas than places of retreat. Then lately we’ve had nasty thunderstorms that remind us of the power of riotous unbridled nature.

Weather is a reality that connects us all, though we deal with the heat in individual ways: air conditioners, table fans, swimming, walking on the shady side of the street, iced tea, gin and tonics. My heart goes out to those hardy sunburned souls who work outside painting, roofing, repairing roads. Last month, while traveling along the Airline Highway in Maine (Calais to Bangor) we waited impatiently in a construction zone for our turn to proceed, and watched workmen following a machine that was melting the asphalt—with actual roaring flames—as the new pavement was laid down. That certainly isn’t a job for the faint of heart.

We hope that this heat isn’t a taste of things to come. I mean, a small amount is fine but it’s hard on everyone, and occasionally I find myself thinking about my mother and other elderly friends who have passed on, how they felt a sense of relief knowing that they could stop worrying about the future. For those of us who expect to be around for a while at least, there are practical matters to consider: Is our sump pump up to snuff? Should we get a generator? When you have a basement, water always finds a way to get in.

The heat has been a good reason for cold suppers. The other evening a friend brought out a watermelon and I thought that was just fine. However, she proceeded to cut the watermelon into thick slices and drizzle a tasty marinade over the top; then she fried strips of halloumi cheese till each one was crispy and golden brown; lastly, she lovingly laid two slices of the fried cheese on each portion of watermelon. Then with knife and fork in hand we proceeded to devour this delicious salty sweet spicy appetizer. Try it yourself: the recipe is on the Internet. Buy a watermelon and impress your friends with something entirely different.

Something reliably the same is a bag of new potatoes. Each little earth-flavored gem is a gift to humanity. Boiled with skins on and served with butter and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, or wrapped in tinfoil and roasted in the coals: there’s nothing better. Perhaps new potatoes are just as good in other places—I hope so—but I’m sure that they can’t taste any better than ours. When you have a vegetable garden you feel like a rich person for a few months. Almost everything on your plate is from your own garden. And then you have too much and you wonder what you were thinking about?

The fireweed is giving way to goldenrod. We welcome the cool of autumn as much as we enjoyed—and survived—the heat of summer.

We hear the sea

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe sea roared all night, the rain pounded down, and in the morning the shore was strewn with broken crab bodies, flecks of foam, stranded jellyfish, and seaweed tips of brown algae fucus serratus. A cormorant lay dead in the sand, its fluorescent orange hooked upper mandible (beak) clamped perfectly closed over its bottom mandible, its sand-filled eyes staring blankly into space. A beautiful creature. You rarely find deceased birds before the crows and gulls get at them, so we get the idea that they are invincible; but no, birds run into trouble just like the rest of us.

The ridges carved onto the sand by the retreating tide were sharp and unfriendly underfoot and we humans exclaimed, “Now that was a proper storm!” The barnacles yawned and said, “What’s all the fuss?”

In the middle of the “moderate gale” (30 knots or 55 km/hr) the last blossoms blew off our chestnut tree and every single pink and white petal headed straight for the roof of the house. When water started sloshing over the edge of the eaves, remedial action was required to clear the downspouts of those otherwise gorgeous chestnut blossoms, which involved ladders, screwdrivers, bent coat hangers and a certain amount of cursing.

Even after the wind died down the waves could not relax and the rumble of the sea lasted into the afternoon. Finally, silence descended on the Cove. Exhausted flags fell limply, birds and insects came out of hiding, and folks fired up the barbeque; but after an hour a breeze came up from another direction, for the air and sea are never still.

At dusk we went down for a swim. There is no rip tide in the Cove, but all the same, after a storm you can feel the water at the bottom being pulled out to sea and you don’t want to swim out over your head. You merely want to jump into the unruly red-tinted waves and have them knock you back.

In the morning we went back to the shore. Three boys were standing in a tidal pool catching flatfish and they told us how to do it: Find a pool where there are lots of flatfish—you will know this if you walk in the water and feel something go “swish” under your feet; try to see where the fish came from by the cloud of sand its “swish” left; then stand in that spot with your feet close together and wait—for apparently a flatfish will return to its own special spot in the sand, and if your feet are the right distance apart and are on the exact spot, the fish will swim back between your feet and you can reach down and nab it. Sound unlikely? In cupped hands one young lad proudly showed us his catch: a little brown flatfish with eyes on top.

Sunny day, stormy day, tide in, tide out, the shore remains a place of mystery and delight.

We heard the sea again last night and wonder what this day holds.

—This is JoDee Samuelson’s 93rd column for The Buzz. Two of her animated films, Mabel’s Saga and A Brief History of Charlottetown are being shown at Projections on the Plaza in August.

Meet the Cleavers

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonEvery year we add manure to our garden and every year we get uninvited wildflowers as part of the package. (“Wildflowers” sounds gentler than “weeds.”) 

This year a healthy crop of Galium aparine, or Cleavers, is springing up. If you have these guests in your yard you need no description from me. Scratchy stems covered with recurved (down-pointing) prickles make Cleavers memorably unpleasant to the touch. That said, the tiny tender leaves are edible and can be steamed and eaten like spinach, or can be added raw to salads—although if you’re not careful you will spend a lot of time picking out prickly bits of stem and laying them aside.

Common garden variety Cleavers (the name is plural) is a member of the bedstraw family and is related to—of all things—coffee! In a month of so, if you have time on your hands, you may collect the minuscule Cleavers seeds and roast them to make a coffee substitute. Of course you can also dig up dandelion roots and roast them for the same purpose. A person can do all kinds of things and it’s good to try doing something at least once. When you have scrubbed enough dandelion roots or collected enough Cleavers seeds to make one cup of beverage, you can return to your real dark roasted coffee beans with renewed appreciation and enjoyment.

More Cleavers lore: Cleavers is called Goose Grass because geese are fond of the leaves. The dry matted foliage of the plant was once used to stuff mattresses. Greek and Swedish farmers used the barbed stems to strain milk. The roots make a permanent red dye. And most importantly, Cleavers is a tonic for the lymphatic system, used to treat swollen glands such as tonsils and adenoids. Isn’t it humbling (and a little annoying) to find that most of our weeds have valuable medicinal uses? Once I learn about them I almost hate to rip them out of the ground; but I do it anyway.

Now here’s something entirely unrelated to Cleavers: Our neighbor Floyd came to the door with a bug in a jar. Good grief! We have earwigs, slugs, mosquitoes…and now Belostomatidae? (That’s Latin for Giant Water Bugs.) Floyd’s specimen, which he found in a Charlottetown parking lot, was a black five-centimeter-long bug with nasty pincers and a devil-may-care attitude. None of us had ever seen anything like it and we’re not sure we want to see another one. Although these creatures are fried and eaten in Asia, a single bug would not make a meal and none of us wish to experiment.

Down at the Cove the periwinkles are all nicely lined up sunning themselves in cracks in the sandstone. Blue herons wade in tidal pools, patiently waiting for dinner to swim by. A seagull cries, “I’m hungry! What did you do with that Giant Water Bug?” A dozen Canada geese skim over our heads honking imperiously, “Where are those Cleavers you’re talking about?”

This is JoDee Samuelson’s 92nd column for The Buzz. 

One thing done

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt feels good to be out raking this time of year. You can look at your pile of leaves and say, there, that’s one thing done.

Little by little we push off our winter quilts of inactivity and slip into lighter summer shawls of sprint to the finish. But it’s a slow start this year. Although the sun rises higher in the sky every day telling us there is no time to lose, the snow on the ground forces us to take things easy, stretch one muscle at a time, do little things like examine our garden tools and paint their handles if needed, sand and oil rusty spots on shovel blades, dig out rubber boots, throw away gardening gloves with holes in the finger tips and buy new ones.

A garlic shoot is coming up under the mulch. Hurrah! That whole area of the garden was under water for months and it seemed like the garlic might not…let’s not talk about it. What an unsettling winter we had with all that water sitting around, all those frozen ponds. So much ice. The Cove still fills with ice when the wind is from the south, then the next day it’s gone somewhere else and we observe that the water along the shore, usually so clear, is now colored a vibrant crimson from topsoil and sandstone washing down from fields and cliffs. A friend who grew up on Cape Breton told me that when she was a child they knew that spring had arrived on Prince Edward Island when they saw the water turning red.

On the hillsides, migrating geese by the hundreds engage in boisterous discussions about food and weather, while blue herons cruise slowly overhead, eyeing the landscape. Our birdfeeder is still in demand by our resident bird population, the mourning doves, blue jays, chickadees, goldfinches, sparrows, juncos, nuthatches and woodpeckers. A few red-winged blackbirds have joined the feeder queue, along with the grackles who are setting up shop in spruce trees around the yard. We love the grackles’ iridescent green heads, their bright intelligent eyes and their self-confidence.

And for the first time ever, a pair of gray partridges has appeared and they are obviously very much in love. They remind us of that highly visible royal couple, Harry and Meghan, always touching and exchanging meaningful glances. Our partridges, however, are practically invisible against the dead grass, and can only be spotted when they duck in and out of the low bushes. Possibly their nest is nearby, safe (we hope) from hawks, coyotes and foxes. When Mother finishes laying her 10–20 eggs she will settle down and incubate them for three weeks, and they will all hatch on the same day! Then things will really get busy for Ma and Pa. Partridge chicks only eat bugs (high protein) so that’s good for all of us, isn’t it?

I like to think of partridges looking at their nest full of chicks and saying, there, that’s one thing done.

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