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This hot summer day

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe tide has been out all afternoon, but now as the water approaches and sand bars begin to shrink, mothers reluctantly prepare to leave their little settlements out in the Cove. As they ease their way out of comfortable beach chairs and assess their belongings, they call out to children and puppies to announce that departure is imminent. When this gets no attention, they resort to more drastic means: “We’ll stop for ice cream on the way home.” Ears perk up and heads turn towards this interesting voice. Still, it is a long challenging battle to herd a salty sun-drenched brood into a small marching unit.

Eventually everything is gathered under one roof, as it were, and mothers head to shore with arms and strollers laden down with blankets, buckets and balls, folding chairs and umbrellas, wet towels, sunscreen lotion, empty water bottles, crumpled chip bags, and damp dog-eared copies of Woman’s Day and Martha Stewart Living (filled with recipes to try in the future: chicken casserole with bread crumbs on top, or burgers with toppings of goat cheese and chopped cilantro—imagine! they look so good in the magazine). Like Pied Pipers, the mothers are followed from beach to parking lot by straggling trails of hot sticky children with seaweed in their hair and sand between every toe.

For those of us who no longer have young children at home, this scene is full of amusement and nostalgia. Fortunately we can still take part in these summer rituals, for summer visitors pull us down to the shore, force us to lie on wet towels on a sand bar and feed us chips (poutine-flavored chips which, we agreed, really did taste like gravy—if that’s a good thing). Their children bring us hermit crabs and dead jellyfish, and we all return home smelling like slightly ponky shellfish.

Yesterday one group of summer visitors arrived and another left. In the brief overlap we lunched on yellow beans, red potatoes, salad greens and fresh peas, all from our garden, the height of pleasure in this ripening month of August. Then there were the fond good-byes and honks and arms waving out the window as the car of our loved ones started off on the long drive away from the Island.

Today the whirligigs are twirling in our backyard and clouds scuttle across the sky. We settle in with new guests (not guests but family members who live away) and debate our options. We could go to town and join the throngs waiting at the grocery store checkout; or we could go to the North Shore and take a long walk along some lovely white beach; or we could stay home and hang out. There will be more green beans to pick, and the blueberries are ripe at the U-Pick down the road. Whatever happens I will clasp this hot summer day to my breast, for it will never return again.

The livin’ is easy

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe hay is almost in around the country, so it’s safe to hope for rain. Our water barrel is empty and the garden vegetables are gazing wistfully up at the sky.  Dry or not, the Island has never looked better.  Calves and foals gambol in lush green pastures, delighted children scream and splash in the Cove, rows of potatoes march in perfect formation from roadside to horizon, and even the cotton is high.

Cotton? Yes, cotton. Along the shore road just before the turn-off to the church, there is a small tract of land that no one visits or even notices. “Lucy’s Bog” is a quiet retreat for reclusive insects, and special plants like rhodora, cranberries and sphagnum moss that like to live with their feet in water. Right now the bog is alive with bog cotton, eriophorum angustifolium, in full bloom. The flowers of bog cotton look like tufts of fibreglas insulation caught on twigs, so you might not notice that these tufts are actually flowers. This unsung perennial is a member of the sedge family, which has its own jingle: “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have nodes where leaves are found.”

Bog cotton has been used to make paper and candlewicks, and to dress wounds. The leaves, stems, roots and seeds are edible at various stages, and have traditionally featured in the cuisine and medical lore of peoples all across the Northern Hemisphere. Does anyone on the Island know how to cure diarrhea or make paper with bog cotton? I sure don’t.

There’s another source of cotton in the Cove. Around the corner at the alpaca farm, several cottonwood trees have let go their fluff and the farmyard looks like it’s been hit by a snow squall. When we were getting our eggs this morning, as we do every Friday morning, someone mentioned that cottonwood fluff is a trendy filling for duvets.  We accordingly gathered up a bag of the stuff (which contains the seeds of the poplar) and amazingly, when you put your hand into the bag of cotton it does feel warm. But a few trees don’t give that much fluff (plus there were suspicious farmyard particles clinging to it) so we took our eggs and headed home.

As we were going along, I bent down and picked an interesting tiny wildflower growing out of the roadside. Looked it up in the Peterson Guide: yellow rattle. Yellow rattle is an important part of certain ecosystems, but so modest and retiring it’s almost invisible.

Seems like I’m just starting to see things. Take jellyfish, for example. At Peake’s Quay the other day we peered over the wharf in amazement: hundreds of transparent moon jellies were flipping over and over, putting on their own little jellyfish show. I didn’t know they did that.

Summertime, we love you. The livin’ is easy, the fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. It’s all good.

Gifts of the sea

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonAll night long the wind blew out of the southeast and the surf beat against the capes with a steady thundering roar. In the morning, long swells began to deposit seaweed and shells ripped from the sea floor, and soon the beach was piled thickly with a mélange of fresh sweet seaweeds: kelp, sea lettuce, Irish moss, twig weed, leaf weed, knotted wrack. In the olden days farmers would rush down to the shore at low tide to fill up carts and wagons with free organic fertilizer; but today these gifts of the sea are largely ignored.

Seaweeds and their ancestors have been filtering toxins, producing oxygen, and providing food and shelter for sea creatures since the beginning of life on earth. Some storms wash in mostly eel grass, or Irish moss or kelp, for each seaweed has its own position in the water world and is vulnerable to different forces.  Occasionally we find laver (porphyra), a soft broad-leafed reddish-brown seaweed of single-celled thickness. Rachel Carson writes: “[Porphyra] resembles nothing so much as little pieces of brown transparent plastic cut out of someone’s raincoat.” Washed, shredded, molded and toasted, it becomes nori, the flavorful wrapping around sushi. Japan produces about 7 billion sheets of nori annually: that’s a lot of sushi! Most seaweeds are perfectly edible and can be nibbled for a salty snack, or chopped and boiled in water for nourishing (but tasteless) soup.

Identifying seaweeds can be a challenge. Even the Peterson Guide has a section titled “Confusing Brown Seaweeds.”  Irish moss is easy to pick out of the seaweed beach salad because it turns translucent glossy white and feels like it might dissolve in your hands. People up West (Summerside and beyond) make custard and pie out of it. Here’s a recipe:

Rinse a handful of Irish moss thoroughly in fresh water to remove all sand and debris. Heat 1 litre milk in the top of a double boiler and add the clean moss. Cook 30 minutes (above the boiling water) stirring frequently. Strain mixture through a sieve, add honey or sugar and a little vanilla, then pour into a dampened mold. Chill, turn out of mold—and this is important—serve with something flavorful like rhubarb or strawberry sauce, or a splash of rum, otherwise this blancmange might seem (as it does to me) a bit too bland, slippery, and, well, seaweed-y. But give it a try.

Incidentally, if you happen to be walking barefoot through a pile of fresh seaweed in the Cove this summer (being mindful of sharp shells buried underneath), you’ll notice that your feet get a massage from tiny jumping crustaceans called beach hoppers. Don’t worry, they’re perfectly harmless. Heck, they and their kind have been hopping on beaches for millions of years and they aren’t interested in humans at all. They love seaweed, and a big blow with a high sea is just the thing to make their day.

Following the plow

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe Island spring is like a reluctant suitor moving much too cautiously in the pursuit of love, warmth and happiness. All the same, there is no turning back. Warmth and happiness—and hopefully love—are just around the corner.

The soil is finally dry enough for the farmer to be out on his land. And following the plow is the inevitable flock of seagulls with feathers glowing pure white against the deep-red overturned sods. Most of the gulls in the Cove are herring gulls or ring-billed gulls that live and travel together in large groups or colonies. At this time of year they may be nesting on St. Peters Island or some isolated beach, for their nests are on the ground and they must be built far away from the prying eyes and feet of humans.

During the nesting period, the parents forage on land for seeds and earthworms: hence the following of the plow. Later on when their chicks are grown, seagulls spend more time at sea, cruising above the Strait at 35 kph, or bobbing cheerfully on the water with webbed feet propelling them forward. They have special glands that flush salt from their systems, allowing them to drink salt water and stay away from land for long periods of time. Now they dine mostly on crabs, mollusks and small fish—whatever will fit through their knacky unhinging jaws.

Because they will eat almost anything (including other dead birds), gulls (and crows) help keep our beaches pristine. They are sort of the Women’s Institute of the shoreline. When a gull is full of clams and minnows and tasty bugs, it stands on one leg dreamily staring into space. This stance is not an effort to look nonchalant, but the gull is merely warming up its leg by pulling it up next to its nice hot body.

Seagulls on a sandbar all seem to stand facing the same direction: into the wind. No one is organizing this. They like to face into the wind to provide a quick take-off, for as all air pilots know, it takes less space and time to get airborne if you are already facing into the wind.

Now here’s something! Humans have three types of cones in our eyes that allow us to see the three primary colors. Gulls have four cones. This fourth cone allows them to see infrared color, which means that gulls can see heat. Imagine. I think this is something that could be the basis of a very compelling Super Gull comic series.  (Feel free to use this idea.)

Gulls are monogamous, which means that they apparently stay in love their whole lives. A herring gull can live for 49 years. That’s a lot of love. I think it’s safe to say that seagulls are not reluctant suitors, and our Island spring could learn a lot from them.

Getting away

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt was the end of March. According to the calendar, spring had arrived. Trembling, we crawled out of our snow-bound cave and turned our eyes to the heavens. Sun, hast thou forsaken us? Whither the crocuses and daffodils, the freshets, the elderflower blossoms?

Time for a change of scenery. We put the summer tires on, filled up with gas at Borden, and headed south to visit friends from the Cove who spend the winter in Lake Worth, Florida.

Florida is far away. 3000 kilometers away. We drove through Maine (snowy and cold), New Hampshire (old mill towns), Massachusetts (plenty of snow), Connecticut (nothing blooming), and on to New York (snowing) where we spent a few days with family. Boldly leaving winter boots and jackets behind, we crossed the stately Hudson River into New Jersey (crazy traffic), through Pennsylvania (big trucks, dead deer on roadside), Maryland (expensive tolls, first daffodils), Virginia (huge country estates), and North Carolina (green leaves!). It started to get warm in the middle of South Carolina (grocery stores selling interesting pig parts), even warmer in Georgia (Civil War mementos, gas $1.93/gal.), and finally (palm trees and oranges) we crossed St. Mary’s River into Florida.

In St. Augustine (earliest European settlement in North America) we had our first experience of fully-developed tourism, with old motels from another era, open-air tour trains, and peacocks roaming Ponce de Léon’s “Fountain of Youth.”

Near Cape Canaveral we stopped at Turtle Mound, a man-made 50-foot high hillock of oyster shells used as a lookout by native people 1000 years ago. The drive to this site paralleled an Atlantic shoreline that was hidden behind an astonishing array of pastel-colored housing developments.

Finally, Lake Worth and the comfort of our friends’ air-conditioned condo. Home-cooking, a swim in the pool, sauna and late night drink really set us up. So this is what it’s all about. Next day we put up a tent in the municipal park and joined hundreds of Canadians who, in winter, call this location home. Most of these people are from Québec. They live in elaborate motor homes with every mod con, and man, are they happy! They have their own newspaper, own radio station, and friends living next door.

The secret is the friends. Florida is a social destination. The weather is fantastic (except for humidity and hurricanes), but it’s the camaraderie that keeps people coming back. Our friends treated us like royalty. We met their friends. We sang, biked around the park, saw alligators and pelicans, toured a park in the Everglades, got bitten by Florida black flies, drank big American beer, waited at traffic lights… and all too soon it was time to head home, different route this time, just as far.

It sure feels good to get back to our own community. Everything is near-by, small, friendly. We have fresh air, empty spaces, silence.  And we’ll even have crocuses and daffodils, one of these days.

My friend Evelyn

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe phone rang at midnight, shocking me out of my deep mid-winter sleep. It was my brother Lee telling me that my friend Evelyn was dying. Lee could have waited till morning to call, but I guess he wanted to talk to someone. I’m glad he did.

Evelyn was a big-hearted woman. It was her heart that gave out at the last, having worn itself out doing things for other people. Last spring I visited Evelyn at her apartment in an assisted living complex. We had meals together in the group dining room, we took drives in the country, I tightened a screw in her walker, and then it was time to say good-bye. What a fuss she made over me! She had been my mother’s best friend, and when Mom died Evelyn took over in the mothering department.

Evelyn’s parents were German immigrants, and when she finished a few years of education in a one-room school she married a Norwegian farmer. It was hard work farming out in Alberta, as hard as it was here on Prince Edward Island. Her only child died in a traffic accident, and this could have soured her; but Evelyn was one of those people who carried joy with her and spread it around.

Evelyn was an artist in the kitchen. She could cook sauerkraut and pork chops like nobody’s business, make melt-in-your-mouth potato pancakes, and bake cakes and rolls that were worth talking about. In Evelyn’s honour I am sharing with you one of her favourite recipes.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

Evelyn’s Cinnamon Rolls

1 T yeast
½ c warm water
1 c warm milk
2 beaten eggs
4 c flour
½ tsp salt
extra butter
¼ c margarine or butter
brown sugar
1/3 c white sugar
[pecans, walnuts, raisins]

Add 1 tsp sugar to ½ c warm water, sprinkle in 1 pkg (1 Tbsp) dry yeast and stir. Let stand in warm place for 10 min.
Rub together, like making piecrust, the flour, margarine, white sugar and salt. Add the warm milk, beaten eggs, and yeast mixture. Stir and knead gently. Dough should be soft.
Let rise till doubled.
On lightly floured surface roll out a rectangle about ½” thick. Spread with soft butter or margarine and brown sugar—don’t skimp! Sprinkle generously with cinnamon. If you like raisins, scatter a cup or so of nice plump raisins at this time, also nuts if you wish.
Roll the dough tightly, and cut in slices 1” thick. Place rolls in greased pans so they almost touch each other. If you prefer a sticky bun, use more butter and brown sugar on the bottom of the pan, and sprinkle this with a generous layer of crushed nuts before placing rolls in pan.
Let rise ½ hour.
Bake in a moderate oven 325° for 20 minutes, and check often. The dough is so light it can easily burn on top and bottom before being done in the middle.

Smelt shack

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIs there anything nicer this time of year than a feed of fresh smelts? They’re sweet and delicious, and they only take a few minutes to fry up as crispy as you like ‘em.  

Smelts are a family of small fish, Osmeridae, found around the world in places as far away as Italy, Finland, Korea and Japan. In the spring, smelts swim upstream to spawn, and I remember netting them by the dozen down below the old mill in Clyde River. Those fish that didn’t make it into the frying pan were kept to fertilize our garden.

My neighbor Jim has a smelt shack out on the river by the causeway. It’s the only shack there—where did the others go? At one time there were fifty shacks in the vicinity. According to Jim, many landowners don’t want anyone hauling a building across their fields, so it’s hard to get your shack down to the ice. And then there’s the matter of the smelts themselves. Jim hasn’t had any luck fishing these past winters, and thinks seals are to blame.

Here’s how you catch smelts, if there are any to catch. You get your shack onto good solid ice where there’s about six feet of water underneath at high tide. Using a chainsaw you cut a hole in the ice two feet wide by six feet long. Dump in some crushed oyster shells to whiten up the river bottom so you can see the smelts. (You can also use a weighted white sheet, but a sheet can get washed away in the current.) To attract the smelts, sprinkle in some whole corn, cooked macaroni or spaghetti, anything with color; or you can make “mackerel dough” out a can of mackerel and some mashed potatoes and oatmeal all mixed together. Yum. Now sit back on your fold-down seat and wait. You might want to have a little drink at this time.

When you see the fish swimming around on the bottom nibbling on the mackerel dough, you spear them with the knacky smelt spear you’ve made out of a five foot length of half-inch dowel or bamboo, or in Jim’s case, out of a length of stainless steel welding rod. The pointy tip is the big challenge—and you have to be reasonably sober to stab a smelt in the first place.

If you don’t manage to fill your bucket with smelts, you can always fry up some bacon and eggs on your propane burner. If it starts to get dark and you want to play cards, no problem, because you have lights hooked up to a battery. If it’s cold and your little potbellied stove is cranking out more heat than you need, you step outside, look at the stars and listen to the ice snapping.

Oh good, here come your fishing buddies with more supplies. Deal the cards and pass the bacon!

Hot Mustard

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonYesterday we went cross-country skiing for the first time this winter. I love how a few centimeters of snow can smooth out all the rough bones of the earth, and accentuate the beauty of every vertical object. We make our way through the frost-covered wildflowers bordering the field—goldenrod, dock, mullein—and head up the big hill. Last summer this field was planted in grain, and since it wasn’t plowed in the fall we don’t have to fight our way over nasty bumps of frozen clay.

Through the hedgerow into the next field we come across an un-harvested crop of some curious grain. Remember those vivid yellow fields of canola last summer? Turns out they weren’t canola, they were hot mustard. All the potatoes in our district have felt the curse of the mighty wireworm and it seems that a few years of planting hot mustard might defeat this insidious pest. The mustard plants themselves are lovely, tall and thin, and it’s the most natural thing in the world to reach down, pluck a few seed pods, crack ‘em open and pop the tiny seeds in your mouth. Whoops! Wikipedia claims that “Mixing ground mustard seeds with water causes a chemical reaction between two compounds in the seed: the enzyme myrosinase and various glucosinolates,” which translates as “a burning sensation on the tip of your tongue.” Will hot mustard defeat wireworms? Wait and see. Skiing through a field of mustard is challenging because many of the sturdy stems have tipped over and turned into ski snares.

We cross the creek bed and follow the tree line behind the old school. The school is closed until spring, taking a well-deserved rest from all the busy events of the year.

What a crowd we had at our New Year’s Levee, including that bunch from Charlottetown—thirty hungry people in two vans—who polished off the last of the sandwiches and made a serious dent in the cookie department. Fun! We’ll be ready for you next year.

 

Back home, it’s time to put wood in the stove, make a pot of tea and read for a few minutes while the fire gets going. It’s a good time for adventure tales: Wild, The Journals of Tappan Adney, and A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador. This last book describes the impossible heroics of a small group of explorers who have to endure a Labrador winter surviving on food that has been stashed long distances apart. Now here in the Cove, when doing some outdoor activity and becoming slightly weary, our cry is “Only forty miles to the lard!” Fortunately we have plenty of lard if we want it. We could harvest some of those mustard seeds if we were starving, but we’re not, so let’s leave them for the wireworms to mull over.

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