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BREATHE!

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonSome of us have been attending an exercise class at the local hall, and as we bend and stretch and shake our booty, the instructor calls, “Don’t forget to breathe!”

Ah yes, breathe. We get ahead of ourselves and forget to stop and smell the—well, the Mayflowers. With summer coming things are only going to ramp up. I guess I’ll get on that treadmill with everyone else and hope for the best; but right now I’m trying to slow down and do one thing at a time.

Recently I took part in an event celebrating the Hillsborough River, which got me thinking about our rivers and how they all begin with springs. Clear pure precious water bubbling out of the ground: springs were such an important resource that their locations were noted on early maps. So, as we had plans to attend a theatrical event in Montague I suggested that while we were out that way we visit the spring at the head of the Hillsborough River.

Do you ever get lost on our backroads? I still get disoriented whenever I cross the Hillsborough Bridge. Eventually we did find our way to a certain woods road in a remote (to us) part of the Island, where we parked the car and headed down a sandy path. Fox sparrows rustled confidently in the dry leaves of the undergrowth—busy as only little birds can be when they have two months to build a home and raise a family. A fat flying insect flew into my face and bounced off my glasses. Mayflowers invited us to stoop down and lift the fragrant tiny white blossoms to our noses. It was perfect. But where was the spring? After a half hour of steady hiking we were starting to feel a little uncertain. But then we turned a corner and there it was: a shallow dark pool with water gushing out of a PVC pipe onto a mossy green hillside. Water came and came and is coming still, tumbling icy cold, delicious, sweetly filtered through the good earth.

Meanwhile, on the surface of the pool whirligig beetles tumbled head over heels in a merry spring frolic, and amorous male water striders tapped impatiently. We had nothing to do but breathe and relax. Was something else going on in the world? Political shenanigans? Flooded basements? Impossible. In thoughtful silence we retraced our steps through the dappled light, past sturdy fir seedlings, ancient horsetail shoots, and sun-warmed maple trees with red buds swelling.

Then it was on to Montague for a dinner theatre featuring the amazing war diaries of Angus MacLean. (And we got lost on our way there.) I highly recommend attending events outside your own community. How else would you know that you could add cinnamon and sugar to mashed turnip? Oh my, what a feast. It was just the thing to follow our magical hour at the spring.

We headed back to the Cove filled with contentment, and mashed potatoes…so full we could barely breathe.

Get going

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIn January as our friends were leaving for Spain, they said, “Why not visit us in Valencia? We’ll have an empty bedroom.”

For two months we waffled: “It’s so complicated…what if…I don’t know.”

“Don’t Know What?” my son exclaimed. “Go!”

So we went to sunny Spain. A brief summary: Wine. Oranges. Olives. Chocolate-filled puff pastries. Café con leche. Bocadillos. That’s just the food. Then there’s the art. Standing in an enormous gallery with a marble floor and vaulted ceiling, surrounded by the output of brilliant artists, is an entirely different experience from looking at photographs in a book. When you step into the Prado Museum you enter an alternate universe. Velázquez, El Greco, Bosch, Rubens, Titian—enormous canvases in gilt frames—Dürer, Sorolla, Raphaël, Goya—the list goes on. Startling and unforgettable. No one will ever paint like this again.

Did I mention cathedrals? There are plenty of them, each one crazily fabulous with alabaster and gilt and precious gems, and frescoes of body-less baby angels with winged heads, and statues of martyred saints with arrows sticking into them. We saw the Holy Chalice! Yes it is honest and truly guaranteed the real thing direct from the Last Supper. Of course you can’t touch it or get close enough for a good picture, but there it is all lit up behind glass in the Cathedral of Valencia.

Spain has castles too. Remember the Roman general Hannibal who crossed the Alps with elephants in 200 B.C.? We visited the castle where Hannibal’s wife had a baby. Why did they care so much about this castle? Sure it’s on top of the biggest hill in the landscape, but what good would it do to be stuck up there and see your enemies approaching? What could you do? It’s all a mystery. You have a big hill and then you stack stones on top of it to get even higher. To be fair, Spaniards have been stacking stones on top of each other for thousands of years. They’re good at it, they like it and they don’t give up.

Spain was fabulous but it was good to come home to the Island. Our crocuses are opening and the garlic is up. It’s spring! This place may be a quiet backwater but we have our share of everything, including beautiful churches and amazing artists. I was sorry to hear that photographer Lionel Stevenson passed away recently. Lionel spent a lifetime looking through the lens of his camera, and in a QEH lobby there is a portrait of New Glasgow blacksmith Buck Hill that demonstrates perfectly the depth of his work.

All forms of art give meaning to life. Whether it’s photography, painting, music, dance, sculpture or literature, art nourishes the soul in inexplicable ways. So I say, go visit someplace where art (and chocolate-filled puff pastries) can be found on every street corner. In other words, when friends invite you to visit them in Spain don’t even think about it. Get going.

Local heroes

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonInspirational events abounded this winter. In January there was the Women’s March that spilled over into Charlottetown; in February we walked in support of our Island Muslim neighbors and friends; and in March the International Women’s Day festival saw some of us attempting our very first belly dance. All of these group events gave us badly-needed energy and hope.

I also had a private encouraging moment. I was standing outside considering my options (walk/snowshoe/go back inside) when two strangers and a little dog strolled up our lane. The woman handed me a freshly baked pumpkin loaf, with a card that read: “Thank you for your articles in The Buzz.” Wow. You’re welcome! It turns out that these people, Debbie and Dana Jeffrey, live in the next community and we often pass their house and admire their canoes all stacked up and ready to go; and so our conversation led to canoeing, and the fact that last summer they canoed from Canoe Cove to Georgian Bay—that’s right, Georgian Bay, Ontario. They did this not for glory or for any cause, but for “personal growth and happiness.” Naturally we had to invite these local heroes over for supper and learn more. 

What was your biggest challenge? “Currents, tides, waves. Heat, humidity. Mosquitoes! Blisters. Mood. Every day was a test. We’d think: what will we encounter today? Then when something difficult happened we’d say hopefully, maybe that was it.”

Any examples? “There was a tornado…we had food poisoning…and canoeing up the Matapedia River during spring flood was almost impossible. We were poling, dragging ourselves along by branches on shore, we finally had to portage…then the wheel of our canoe cart broke just as we caught sight of the St. Lawrence. But the people of rural Québec are wonderful, everyone was so helpful and interested.”

Discouraging moments? “Canoeing along the New Brunswick coast and seeing all the garbage on shore—fishing debris mostly, broken traps, plastic jugs, ropes—it went on and on. Unbelievable.”

Best memory? “Landing on a tiny island in the St. Lawrence, thinking we were alone—when along came the owner. We expected to be booted off but instead we were invited for supper! The St. Lawrence was challenging though, because it’s surprisingly narrow in places and there’s a lot of shipping traffic. Also, retaining walls along the shore make it tricky to find places to land and set up camp. But we had wonderful times. Deer came up to our tent. Bullfrogs were in full chorus. We saw tons of birds. Beautiful…”

And so this spring these adventurous souls intend to pick up where they left off—including a section at St-Zotique, Québec where Dana was sidelined by touching wild parsnip (that’s another story)—with the goal of arriving at the West Coast next summer. On behalf of all of us who stay behind: Bon voyage! Thanks for showing us how life can be lived.

And thanks again for the pumpkin loaf. It was delicious.

Storms of life

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonWe survived the winter’s first real snowstorm. Last night the wind howled all through the wee hours, ice pellets beat noisily against the windows, and the whole house creaked and groaned uncomfortably. It seemed that morning would never come, but morning did come and with it a transformed white world that beckoned us outside. So it was on with the snowshoes and down to the Cove to see what’s what.

High tide! Water filled the marsh and was still rushing in under the bridge, due to the full moon—plus a lunar eclipse and green comet in the sky. (Where are the soothsayers when we need them?) The snow being too deep to go all the way to the park, we circled around the church and through the cemetery. Then I got the bright idea that since this is Canada’s 150th anniversary of the Confederation of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada, we should try to find the grave of someone who died in 1867.

I brushed back the snow from a lichen-covered headstone: “In memory of Donald McNevin, died 1885, aged 32 years.” Right. This is where the MacNevins are buried. My good friend Charles MacNevin passed away this winter in his 90th year and will be buried here in the company of his friends and relations. Charles was the proud keeper of the Cove cemetery and if you wanted to purchase a grave plot he was the man to ask. He was also one of the two last elders living in our community and his wisdom and knowledge are already missed.

More McNevins caught my attention: Daniel McNevin, died Nov. 30, 1878, aged 22 years. Catherine McNevin, died Feb. 27, 1919, aged 90 years. Then I uncovered the grave of someone whose headstone could be the starting point for a whole book:

“Mary MacKinnon, beloved wife of John MacEachern, died Sept. 17, 1875, age 57 years 9 months. Also their beloved children: Sarah … 26 years 7 months; Malcolm … 1 month; Mary … 2 years 9 months; Malcolm … 4 months.” I love it that Mary and her children were “beloved.” Their lives were not rounded off to the year, but to the very month. Mary MacKinnon and dozens of other Mc’s and Mac’s buried in this lovely cemetery lived through the 1867 hoopla; but with so much going on in their personal lives did they even notice?

We finally found the grave of someone who died in 1867: Donald McEachern, died Feb. 6, 1867, aged 22 years. The inscription notes that in 1834 his father Angus emigrated from the Isle of Mull…there’s another book waiting to be written. No doubt there was a snowstorm in February 1867, and we can only imagine that young Donald’s death was a hard blow to the community.

For these people the storms of life are over; for us, another blizzard is on the way. But it’s only a blizzard. We’re alive! We can handle it.

Our winter hours

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonI was born in February. It must have been a few years ago, for when my mother went into labor she was transported to the hospital in a horse-drawn box sleigh complete with a little coal-burning stove. Mother was a city girl who married a Swedish Baptist minister and was somewhat reluctantly transplanted to a tiny parsonage in rural Saskatchewan. I often wonder how she managed without electricity, running water, indoor toilet, or next-door neighbors.

At that time things were much the same on Prince Edward Island. Roads were snow-covered, and winter was a closed-in season when folks never ventured very far from home. It was a time when horses were members of the family, when socks were darned and farm journals studied, and fun and fudge were homemade.

In this present century our lives are brimming over with conveniences and entertainments. The roads are open, and trips to town involve horseless carriages with studded tires, windshield wipers and heated seats. Yet winter remains a private inward-turning affair. As in days of yore, we wear long underwear to supplement the standard winter layers of jacket, boots, mittens, toque and scarf, and we cherish our ice scrapers, variously shaped snow shovels, toboggans, snowshoes, skis, skates, slim-lined pocket flasks.

We still come home to kitchens where pots of soup bubble on the back burner, bread rises in a warm corner, and wet socks and mittens dry on sturdy wooden clothes racks. Indoor activities take up most of our time, and half-finished jigsaw puzzles of valleys in Spain or quaint English cottages take up most of the kitchen table. Good books rest on every horizontal surface—how sorry we are when they’re done! We devour movies by the dozen. Spend hours on the phone. Make vague internet searches for exotic travel destinations. Eat baked apples. Knit. Make quilts. Feed the birds. Watch the sky.

Children come to call. They dig madly into the toybox, scrape designs on window ice, jump on the couch. Restless, full of riotous laughter and undirected energy. Outdoors they go to excavate holes in drifts, slide down anything that can be slid down, make snow angels and admire their boot tracks, before staggering in with red cheeks, runny noses and icy toes and huge appetites.

Has anything changed in winter since our ancestors made their way to these shores? Not so much. Women continue to fall in love with Swedish Baptist ministers and find themselves transplanted from city to country, and babies persist in being born inconveniently in the middle of winter. We may have central heating and toaster ovens, dish washers and food processors, Netflix and Facebook, but we still have to confront these long nights and short days. We have to get along with one another.

We invite some friends over for supper. Take out our violins and play a few tunes. Make some popcorn the old-fashioned way, by shaking the popper. Talk. Dream. Sleep. And so we pass our winter hours.

The sea is hushed

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonBoats have been pulled up on land and we are faced with the reality of living on an island. Our one bridge keeps us supplied with all the necessities of life, but the waters of the Strait and the Gulf are no longer necessarily our friends. Of course, once the water freezes solidly we can skate on it, or in the olden days, drive a horse and sleigh to town on the frozen river with a load of hay to sell at the stables. One hundred years ago the church in the Cove was hauled on the ice in winter, by horses, up a river and along the Strait to its present location. We may never have enough ice—or knowledge—to do such a thing again.

The annual transformation of the Strait from liquid to solid is an unhurried process. On grey overcast days of December the dark foreboding waters reflect the somber mood of the sky. As temperatures drop and snow begins to collect and linger on the shore, tiny ice crystals form in the sea, turning sharp-edged waves into a heaving sweeping slow-moving mass of slush. Then one day for no reason at all, there is a solid layer of ice on the water—not thick ice from shore to shore—but real ice that covers the shoreline rocks with a treacherous slippery layer. There is a great silence as the sea is hushed. On a calm day the only sound to be heard at the shore is the cracking of ice as the tides shrug their massive shoulders and shift their burden up and down.

Now the shore creatures, the barnacles and whelks, the beach fleas and periwinkles, blue mussels and beachworms, must draw on their own resources and get through the months ahead as best they can. Some will survive, but many will perish. That will also hold true for creatures of land and sea like the crows and seagulls and foxes—for we often see fox tracks along the shore. Certainly there will no be riotous feasting as there is in summer.

Tucked in between periods of heavy weather, are sunny sparkling days when the water far out towards Nova Scotia glistens like a mirage and the world seems full of possibilities. Ten years ago one early January morning my friends and I were walking through the woods to have coffee at a picnic table near the shore. Before we spread out our repast on the table we peered over the edge of the cape…and there below us was a full-grown harp seal snoozing on a snow-covered sandstone ledge. “It’s a selkie!” Mari exclaimed. The seal’s presence did seem mythological, significant, memorable, magical. We watched it in respectful silence before retreating to our coffee and conversation. When we left to go home, the seal was gone; but the enchantment lingered.

May we be visited with magic, and ice and snow and friendship and coffee, all winter long.

Living Nativity

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonColored Christmas lights are coming on in the countryside, and not a minute too soon. These long black nights need all the encouragement they can get, and nothing cheers the soul more than a string of red and green lights wrapped around a bush.

There are two households in the Cove that go all-out with flashing lights, inflatable penguins, nodding Santas, and wooden cut-out elves and reindeer. The rest of us do our best, as poor cousins, to provide respectable back-up to these showcases of Christmas cheer.

One of our decorating giants is Chrys Jenkins—he is a giant too, at over six feet—who carries his Christmas fantasies one step farther, and for three days in December he and his wife stage a Living Nativity in their barnyard. Last week I noticed Chrys up a ladder under a tree, stringing some lights. “Careful up there!” I called.

“That’s my first string,” he said as he climbed down. “Got a ways to go.”

“How many lights you put up?”

“Thousands! Have to get another electric panel for Christmas—heavier service—takes a lot of juice, I’ll tell you. The light bill jumps! But we just keep decorating till there’s no more room.”

“What got you going with this Living Nativity thing?”

Chrys unrolled another string of lights. “I’d been through them before, other places. The church at Fort Augustus used to have a drive-through nativity. So I was thinking, we have a small farm, lots of animals, cattle, donkeys, goats, alpacas, we could do that.”

“But what a lot of work! Why do you do it?”

“It’s more for the joy of it than anything. You see the kids, old people too, with smiles on their faces, looking out those car windows, and it’s gotta be the best feeling in the world.”

“You built a special shed for the nativity scene?”

“Yeah, kind of a loafing barn. But we use it all year so it wasn’t really an extra expense.”

“How does it work? People drive in the yard past the manger…”

“…and see Mary and Joseph, angels, kings, shepherds, baby Jesus [a doll], a donkey and the other animals. There’s a choir too: We have some great singers around here. Of course I couldn’t do it without Gordon and Ira, and Karyn provides all the costumes. But really, everyone can’t wait to help out.”

“There’s food in the house for all the helpers?”

“Yeah, people bring chili, soup, bread. I think it brings good spirit to the community.”

“How many times have you done this?”

“This’ll be our eighth year. All the donations go to Santa’s Angels and Children’s Wish, so it’s a pretty good cause.”

While we were talking, a donkey came out of the barn to say hello. I could tell by the way she nuzzled up against Chrys’s leg that they are the best of friends. 

Peace on earth is alive and well in the Cove.

This clear day

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt was a Thanksgiving to remember: The Blue Jays swept their series against Texas; Hilary Clinton kept her cool in the second presidential debate; and Hurricane Matthew brushed by the Island, baring his teeth and reminding us of the power of nature. On Thanksgiving Day the power went out a couple hours before dinner, but everyone pooled resources, and somehow our relief that the storm wasn’t worse—here at least—made the cranberry sauce more piquant and the wine more potent.

Matthew’s winds knocked down the last of the nuts from our chestnut trees. What a commotion as chestnut cluster bombs hurled themselves to the ground, their sharp spikes impaling unwary creatures below. A butternut tree blew down in the storm. It was a mature forty-year old tree that should be missed, but we are secretly glad to see it gone, for its hundreds of nuts were all talk and no substance. Happily it blew over on top of the woodpile and not on top of the car. Our trusty neighbor Gordon came over with his chainsaw, and now sunlight is pouring into a new corner of the yard.

Now on this calm clear morning it’s business as usual here in the Cove. The tide clock says there are still two hours till high tide, so we head to the shore with heavy plastic fertilizer bags to see if the storm has washed in some seaweed. (We need it for mulching the garlic.) Surprisingly, the beach is bare.

We walk along picking up rocks and shells, then sit on a sandstone ledge watching the water silently inch its way into the Cove. In the shrinking tidal pools, gulls, terns and sandpipers busily snatch up the tiny fish being washed in with the tide. Overhead, a flock of geese heading south noisily bids farewell to the Island for another year. At our feet, mussels and barnacles and periwinkles feed and breathe and grow. Everything is so…normal.

Here at the water’s edge I am in awe of these self-sufficient life forms. Hurricane? Bah. Mussel shells point into the waves, barnacles absolutely can’t be dislodged, and periwinkles love a good shower. If only we humans were so resilient and unconcerned…although what do I know? Maybe every creature has worries we know nothing about.

The water rises and the forked wrack (rockweed) at the base of the capes begins to sway. We move to higher ground where an orange leaf blows past my ear and lands on my shoe. I look up to see colorful sumac bushes leaning over the edge of the cape. It’s autumn, they say. The days are getting shorter. You’re not one of us, you’re a human. Don’t you want to survive? Go home! Rake those chestnuts! Stack that wood!

Okay, okay. I just wanted to take a little time to think about things, but you’re right. There’ll be plenty of time to think about things—once the snow falls.

Events Calendar

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