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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.

Enamel washbasin

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThis summer I was walking through a Reny’s store in Maine when I spotted a 15 quart white enamel washbasin hanging on the wall. I poked around the store, but kept being drawn to this washbasin. $22 US. Hmm. After lifting it off the wall and hanging it back up a few times, I finally tucked it under my arm and headed for the cashier. I’ve been happy about that decision ever since.

My mother had an enamel washbasin of similar size, dark midnight blue with white flecks. With that washbasin full of hot soapy water, Mom would take her washboard and vigorously scrub stubborn grass stains out of our pants. She would use that washbasin for bleaching special white items. Or she would take it to the garden and fill it with beans, lettuce, cabbages, tomatoes—anything that wasn’t full of dirt. Old buckets were, and still are, good enough for potatoes and carrots.

Now I have my own enamel washbasin. Today it is filled with ripe red apples from my neighbor’s orchard. How could I refuse someone who brings a big box of apples right to my door? The thing is, every apple tree on the Island is groaning beneath a crop of apples that hasn’t been seen in years, and I can’t help picking some of every variety. Our porch is full of apples and I don’t know what to do with all of them. I wish I had a cider press.

We are glutted with good things to eat. Last week we cleaned the freezer and discovered a large bag of frozen whole tomatoes, in addition to cartons of frozen tomato sauce still uneaten. Oh dear. So we’re giving away tomatoes, and putting the rest in canning jars—although we still have canned tomato sauce in the cellar from 2013. I guess our family isn’t big enough. Something different must be done next year. For one thing, don’t plant so many tomatoes…but you never know, there might be a crop failure, blight or something. I guess having too many tomatoes or apples isn’t such a big problem, as problems go.

I should mention that dealing with produce isn’t the only thing going on in the Cove. We had a Kitchen Party at the old school (which was painted this summer and looks fabulous) and everybody had a grand time. Outside it was raining cats and dogs, but inside our souls were being filled with song. More music please! Later that night a big wind came up and knocked down more apples.

Maybe a person can have too many apples, but you can’t have too many basins or buckets. Although I’m trying to simplify my life and get rid of stuff, I have my heart set on a galvanized steel washtub—you know, the big square ones with handles (yes, my mother had one of these too). So if you see one for sale anywhere, let me know.

For ourselves

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe rain is falling today and it’s very welcome, for the grass is brown and crispy. Skunks and crows are having a field day turning over sods in their search for juicy grubs. In the middle of our neighbor’s lawn they have worked up a perfectly round patch that could easily be turned into an attractive flowerbed; but some folks prefer large uninterrupted lawns, and that’s okay too.

I can’t speak for the fortunes of our Island potato farmers, but our own personal potatoes have been picture-perfect from the second their first leaves poked above ground. Colorado potato beetles made a half-hearted appearance the first of August, but we kept daily potato patrol and things never got out of hand. And what potatoes we’ve grown! Red, blue, yellow, fingerlings, all perfect. A little scab on a few, but that doesn’t hurt anything. 

We had a houseguest recently, a friend from Germany. I asked her (don’t we all do this?) what she thought of the Island. She said, “The potatoes have a better view of the water than the tourists.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that any place else there would be giant hotels all along the waterfront. Here the potato fields stretch down the hills to the pink cliffs, and so the potatoes get the best view.”

I never thought about it that way.

Another summer visitor said, “Is it the Island or is it your house? As soon as I get here things immediately slow down. The air is clean, the food tastes better, the people are chattier—people in the grocery store all seem to know each other; and the stars! You forget there are so many.”

We went camping with these friends at Campbell’s Cove where there is a pleasant private [formerly provincial] campground full of happy people and well-behaved children. The stars were indeed bright and plentiful, the food was delectable, and everyone was chatty as hell. Potato fields stretched down to the “pink” cliffs, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence waters sparkled a spectacular grey-green. Could any place be more beautiful than this unsung little alcove?—Well actually, the Island is full of such places.

“Who takes care of everything?” asked my German friend. “Who mends the fences, cleans the ditches, paints the houses, makes everything look so pretty?”

“Why, we all do.”

“Do you do it just for summer visitors? For tourists like me?”

“Of course not! We love this place. We do it for ourselves.”

“And your potatoes: How do you get them to taste so good?”

“Potatoes just like to grow here, I guess. We’re lucky.”…And aren’t we lucky. We get to live here all year long! Somehow a lot of storms pass us by; we don’t have poisonous snakes or scary wild creatures; maybe we lock our doors, maybe not; and today the rain is falling just when we need it. Perfect.

The Winking Paddleworm

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonOn perfect summer days, of which there are many, we take our supper to the shore, sit on flat picnic rocks and eat uncomplicated meals made delicious by sun and surf. A towel must be spread to protect one’s bottom from barnacles that, on this rock, come in two sizes and colors: small white (about 2 mm diameter) and large amber (12 mm). The two groups keep strictly to themselves, and some of the little fellows must die out because they snuggle into one another as closely as only barnacles can snuggle, so what happens when they grow into adulthood? 

After our beach supper I am peering into a rocky tidal pool when I notice a long flat reddish-striped worm grazing on some filmy strands of rockweed (possibly soft sourweed). As soon as it spots me, the worm looks up and winks before quickly retreating tail-first into a hole at the base of the seaweed.—Well, it doesn’t actually wink (does it even have eyes?) but it does seem determined to dine in privacy. At home I check my trusty Peterson Guide: it’s a paddleworm. Paddleworms are carnivores, so this fellow must be snacking on some miniscule fleshy creatures that inhabit the seaweed.

Further down the shore on a sandbar, hundreds of tiny tubes stick out of the sand: the burrows of trumpet worms. Rachel Carson in The Edge of the Sea (p. 143) describes these tubes as “natural mosaics of sand, one grain thick, the building stones fitted together with meticulous care.” Here I am casually trampling on a microscopic architectural wonder. 

And this red sand I’m trampling on: why is it red? I recently learned that Island sandstone—and hence its sand—is composed mainly of quartz grains coated with a fine dust of hematite or iron oxide, also known as rust. On the North Shore the waves rolling in from the Gulf of St. Lawrence are so powerful they knock this rusty coating from the sand grains. Along the South Shore the waves of the Northumberland Strait “lap” rather than “pound” so the hematite stays on and the sand remains red. The white sand at Basin Head is an exception: it is composed of silica grains that squeak when they rub against each other, earning this beach the name of Singing Sands. (Thanks to geologist John DeGrace in The Island Magazine, No. 46.)

There is no end to the mysteries one may ponder whilst lingering at the seashore. Astronomer Carl Sagan writes that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on earth. Obviously we know very little about what is going on over our heads, but we are equally ignorant about what goes on under our feet.

Enough mysteries for one day. The tide is coming in and the evening beckons. We walk back across the Cove as sandbars shrink and tidal pools swell, and a whole new cycle of shore life begins.

If These Shores Could Talk

Review by JoDee Samuelson

In one of Georgetown’s many cemeteries is a tall gray headstone with the following inscription: MEYRICK LALLY. DIED DECEMBER 15, 1847, AGED 5 YEARS 5 MONTHS. A CHILD OF SINGULAR AMIABILITY AND INTELLIGENCE.

The citizens of Georgetown have always had a healthy respect for intelligence and good humor. In 1887 they built a beautiful theatre and named it the King’s Playhouse. In 1983, after providing a venue for cultural activities for almost a hundred years, the theatre burned down; but the next year the community upped and built an even bigger one. That Georgetown spirit is noteworthy and continues to this day.

At opening night of If These Shores Could Talk lovely executive-director Hayley Zavo in her eye-catching black and white polka dot dress greets us at the front door, and front of house crew Sammy D, Samantha, Randall and Phil give us a warm welcome. Inside, photos of famous visiting artists (Buffy St-Marie, Jimmy Rankin, George Canyon) hang straight and true; the bathrooms are squeaky clean; the popcorn (you can bring it into the theatre) is hot and buttery.

A good-sized crowd of young and old soon fills half of the 300-seat theatre, eagerly awaiting what is advertised as “a lively musical revue featuring the music and poetry of the east coast.” Lights dim, fiddler Allison Ling Giggey enters silhouetted against a tranquil seascape, and seasoned stage veteran Kevin Ryan opens with a monologue about displaced Islanders working in Alberta (a recurring theme), before launching into the song “Lighthouse Keepers Dream” by Jim Moffatt: “Old sailors will tell you the sea’s no easy life, and if you don’t believe them then go and ask their wife.”

Song follows song, interspersed with jokes (which unfortunately fall flat), poems, more monologues, and the occasional step dance by Jennifer Carson. We would like to see and hear more from Jennifer who, with her natural voice and delivery, single-handedly provides a kitchen party energy to the show.

Younger cast members Garrett O’Brien and Dakota Lee Darrach come into their own in the second half when Garrett belts out a Canadian Idols-type rendition of some pop song – which has nothing to do with the show’s theme but gives him a moment in the sun; and Dakota sings a sweet ballad that concludes with a waltz around the stage partnered with her mother, Sherri-Lee Darrach. The sparkling Sherri-Lee provides a stabilizing force to the production with her strong voice and calm delivery, while Ben Aitken on the keyboard and guitar adds a professional touch to the whole event.

At the end of the show first-time director Justin Simard takes a bow with the cast, no doubt relieved that everything has gone off more or less as planned. In his next foray into writing he might try to provide more storyline; avoid clichés about beer-drinking and baseball caps; dress the actors in something colorful; rehearse the jokes; and throw in a few sing-alongs, for audiences like ours are dying to sing. Also, provide us with a list of songs and composers: I’ve never heard many of these songs and might like to locate the original recordings.

All in all, a good time is to be had at the King’s Playhouse. So I say, lovers of local culture, hie thee to Georgetown. It’s a mere hop, skip and a jump from Charlottetown. Enjoy its restaurants, funky art store, historic churches, Mair Museum (featuring Bea Mair’s collection of fossils and miscellany galore), extraordinary public gardens with giant ship’s wheel, and boardwalk alongside the iconic sea.

Now what doth hinder thee from partaking of such history, beauty and joy?

Frogs crossing

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt was a wet black night in West Prince with the rain pounding relentlessly on roofs and sodden ground. We were reluctant to say good-bye to our friends in their cozy house on the Harper Road, but after many hugs and fond farewells we all took a deep breath and ran out to the car. Then with a toot of the horn and “them windshield wipers slappin’ time” we drove away…into a great dark void. We might have been driving over the edge of the earth for all we could see. The road markings had faded into oblivion, just as they have in our part of the Island, and the wet road absorbed every speck of light.

“Where the heck is the white line?” I asked rhetorically as I eased the car down what seemed to be the middle of the road. 

“Wouldn’t hurt to paint the stripes once in a while,” observed my friend.

“What are all those lumps?” asked my other friend. “Chunks of pavement? Good grief, this road is in bad shape…Wait a minute—those lumps are frogs! It must be the Night of Frogs Crossing the Road!”

It was true: the road was alive with hopping frogs, common everyday Pseudacris crucifer (spring peepers) that somehow all had the same idea: We must cross the road tonight. Did it have something to do with love? Food? Recreation? Who knows. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic at that time of night, so we only squashed a few dozen frogs. Sorry about that.

It seems that there is a healthy population of amphibians in West Prince. We have peepers in the Cove too. If you walk by the pond across the field in late spring, you’ll hear thousand of peepers in full chorus: an exhilarating, deafening, humbling experience. All that life going on alongside humanity without us having to do a single thing.

Life is doing its own thing everywhere. The other day I was driving on a back road and came across five young foxes playing in the middle of the highway. They saw me coming and showed no fear; but a parent in the wings must have signaled them because all at once they scampered/tumbled/rolled into the ditch. Watching them disappear into the undergrowth was like watching a kindergarten class leave the stage.

Speaking of foxes, our friends on the Harper Road recently chased a fox out of their yard—a fox with one of their plump brown laying hens in its mouth! Fortunately the fox dropped the hen and she is reportedly as good as new.

Foxes have to feed themselves and their young ones too. Apparently they will eat almost anything, including frogs. So I suggest they leave the chickens alone, and go out a-hunting on a stormy night, on a Night when the Frogs are Crossing the Road.

Free food

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThere is a patch of curly dock that comes up beside the garden year after year. A proud member of the buckwheat family, curly dock is a cousin to rhubarb and burdock, and although it will never turn into a delicious pie, nor produce burrs, it will grow into a rather coarse overbearing perennial of little interest to gardeners. During the Depression, dock was an important vegetable because it was free and readily available. These days it has become popular with natural food buffs who are eager to share their dock recipes on the Internet: Stir-fried dock with bacon and onions; potato, dock and tahini soup; dock cream cheese spread. Any of this sound good to you?

As a natural food aficionado myself, I’ve been thinking that it’s my duty to at least try eating dock, so last night I bit the bullet and ate some. Dug up a dozen plants, disposed of the roots, washed the leaves thoroughly and chopped ‘em up. Steamed them for five minutes, splashed the whole works with a little lemon juice and butter, and to my surprise, curly dock turned out to taste almost the same as spinach. Did I feel healthier or stronger afterwards? Not necessarily, but that’s not the point of food, is it? It’s supposed to keep you alive. Judging by the healthy crop of curly dock in our yard we won’t starve for a few weeks. But dock and I have not yet become friends; I’d call us acquaintances.

I should mention that dock root has been used to treat skin infections and athlete’s foot, so perhaps I should be saving the roots too…but the line must be drawn somewhere.

Meanwhile we’re busy eating dandelion greens (bitter but yummy), fireweed shoots (somewhat like asparagus), watercress (spicy and tender), and fiddleheads (fiddleheady). In the coming months I have big plans to try out other free food. Next on the menu: spruce buds—apparently good with roasts. (Like cooking with Buckley’s cough syrup?) Then it’ll be on to lamb’s quarters (tender deliciousness), sheep sorrel (lemony), and chickweed and purslane if I don’t toss them away automatically. In due course we will snack on wild strawberries, add daylily flowers and nasturtium blossoms to our salads, make lemonade from sumac flower clusters, put snippets of various seaweeds in our soup, and keep our eyes open for meadow mushrooms and chanterelles.

In the fall I plan to harvest acorns, peel them and boil them several times to remove tannic acid, then grind them into flour. Raspberry leaf tea, rose hip jam, blackberry wine—I’m going to do it all! So much good stuff around just begging to be eaten.

No dock where you live, you say? Try walking along Confederation Trail. If you can’t find any, then come out to the Cove and help yourself to all you want from our yard. Bon appetit.

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