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Digging Dandelions

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonLast month on Mother’s Day I naturally cast my thoughts back to my own mother, Constance Victoria Swanson, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, just before the beginning of World War I. If Mom knew I was writing this column, she’d be so proud. She’d be telling all her friends about me, and sending me ideas every week.

Mom was a woman who believed wholeheartedly in Mother’s Day, and who can blame her?  She exchanged her dreams of being a full-time artist for the reality of being a full-time wife and mother, and she expected some recognition of her sacrifice.

Mom was old-fashioned and sentimental. She was also highly practical. This time of year she would have tomato seedlings lined up on every windowsill, vying for space with the geraniums she had over-wintered. She’d have houseplant slips of every description rooting in jars by the sink. She’d be sorting through all the seeds she’d saved from last summer.

When it came to foraging for edible wild food, Mom was right in there with Euell Gibbons. In spring she’d be out in the yard digging up dandelion roots to make dandelion coffee—just for the fun of it, mind you, because it takes buckets of roots to make even a little coffee, and the roots are dirty and twisty and small…try it if you like. And did you know that dandelion sap is supposed to heal warts? We didn’t have warts in our family, but Mom liked to pass on this bit of folklore to other sufferers.

She harvested raspberry leaves for tea.  She picked chickweed and tangy sheep sorrel for summer salads. When I was a child I thought everyone drank elderflower blossom champagne, and spread their toast with rosehip jam.

I’m thinking of my mother not just because of Mother’s Day, but because I recently finished a new film, Women of Confederation. The film ends with the narrator proclaiming, “We are standing on the shoulders of our mothers!” I truly am standing on the shoulders of my Mother. Thanks Mom.

I admit that I’m not as fond of dandelions as she was. I have a trowel that is just the right size for digging them up, and I don’t keep the roots.

It would be nice to call Mom today and tell her about the twin black lambs at the neighbor’s farm…about the bright green beach grass that is pushing its way through the old brown hair of the inlet…about the Perennial Sale at the Cove…how the garlic is up, and some arugula seems to have seeded itself…how soft and beautiful the harrowed fields look along the Shore Road…about our first campfire and how good the scrambled eggs tasted with a few fresh chives.

Well, that can’t be, so I’ll have to tell you. Happy Summer!

Oh Joyful Spring

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe winter tires are put away, the snow blower man has been paid in full, and the tomato seedlings have their second leaves. It must be spring.

As snow melts back from the walkway, the first flowers to appear are dear little crocuses, spreading their six petals into the sun during the day, closing up protectively at night, asking nothing of anyone except, “Please do not step on us.” In various countries, parts of some crocuses are considered edible. In fact, true saffron comes from a variety of crocus. Here are a few definitions from Webster’s New World Dictionary:

Saffron: A perennial old-world plant (crocus sativus) of the iris family, with funnel-shaped purplish flowers having orange stigmas; the dried aromatic stigmas of this plant used in flavoring and coloring foods…

Stigma: The tip of the style of a flower on which pollen falls and develops.

Style: The usually slender part of a pistil, situated between the ovary and the stigma.

One definition leads to another: you can look up pistil yourself. All I know is that crocuses have six petals, they’re easy to grow, bees love ’em, and they are the joy of any yard in spring.

Although the snowmelt is filtering steadily into Mother Earth, it’s not moving fast enough to suit some people. A neighbor who lives at the bottom of the hill has two sump pumps going steadily, “With maybe a ten second pause till one or the other kicks in.” The Department of Highways backhoe was out last week to un-plug his culvert. Thank heavens for our great highway workers! What would we have done without them this winter? It would be back to the Stone Age for most of us.

Here are some signs of spring in the Cove:

Melting snow reveals the winter’s tossed coffee cups. (Roadside Clean-up is Saturday May 10). Poplar buds are all a-swelling-oh.

Grackles are building nests like mad, flitting about with twigs in their mouths—and when their mouths are full they can’t squawk in their very squawky manner, so I say build away.

Blue herons are fishing in the shallows. Canada geese are joyfully honking overhead. Male goldfinches are turning yellow.

There is a sweet smell in the air (and a certain aroma of manure from local farms). Flies are buzzing lazily around the house. A mosquito had the nerve to bite me.

The sun wakes you up early. Peepers keep you awake at night.

Children wait at the bus stop wearing shorts and t-shirts. Dogs are roaming more than they should. Shaggy matted cows, with their leaping baby calves, are hanging around muddy barnyards dreaming of green pastures. Cats want to be outdoors.

The last jigsaw puzzle has been finished. Seed catalogs claim a permanent place on the kitchen table. Sheds are being cleaned out, windows washed—hey, we made it! And so did the crocuses. Let us all rejoice.

Attitude is Everything

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt is the middle of March, and while open water beckons over the horizon, the land remains imprisoned by ice and snow. Three weeks ago we made a snow-woman down at the shore. She is still plump and bossy. Today is overcast and she does not need her sunglasses, but they look good on her, she thinks. Besides they’re frozen to her nose.  Which is to say that she is cool with everything…unlike we humans who are fussing over yet another storm.

I have beside me a Farmer’s Almanac that says: “As a rule of thumb, plant potatoes before the vernal equinox. Harvest them before the summer solstice.” Maybe some place, but not PEI, not this year.

“Prune fruit trees from the time they are dormant until spring buds swell. Prune maple and birch trees after they leaf out.” In other words, get busy.

“Lupine, morning glory, and sweet pea seeds benefit from having their coats scratched before sowing.” That’s why our sweet peas never sprout. There’s so much I don’t know; but I’m going to keep learning. This year there will be fabulous blooms on trellises all around the yard, thanks to Farmer’s Almanac.

While waiting to prune our maple trees and scratch our sweet pea seeds, many of us have been seeking warmth and sunshine off-Island. I recently came back from Québec and Vermont…okay, neither place was warm or sunny, but they had different snow. And the mountains of Vermont—what can you say. They are genuine mountains. People pay $84 a day to ski down them. If you add on the cost of skis, boots, helmets and goggles, beer, burgers, bedrooms and BMWs, it’s clear that downhill skiing is a sport I can’t afford. However, my friends and I did snowshoe on a trail alongside a ski lift, eight hundred breathtaking vertical feet up and up, with a beer at the end: that much I can afford. A happy memory.

Which is to say, sunshine and warmth aren’t everything. On the other hand, there are a plenty of sun-browned people at the airport these days coming home from Jamaica, Mexico and Florida, looking mighty pleased with themselves as they hug waiting relatives, text their friends and check the weather on their iPads.

The very tanned woman I sat beside on the plane—she was wearing black and white flip-flops—was met at the Charlottetown Airport by a handsome man and a child. “My son,” she told me proudly, “and grandson.” Our bags had not yet arrived. By way of conversation I asked, “You have one grand-child?” “Heck no, I have twenty-five!”

Wow. Again I am reminded of how much I don’t know. You can’t tell anything about a traveler by the colour of her flip-flops, or anything about a snow-woman by her leopard-spotted sunglasses; but one thing’s for sure, you’ve got to admire their attitude.

The Lonely Hunter

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonLong blue shadows stretch across the field as the lonely hunter zigzags through the snowy countryside, dragging his tail behind him. Perhaps he is the same fellow who swings through our yard as part of his daily regimen, stopping by the bird feeder to dig in the snow for fallen seeds, then wandering over to dig through the compost pile to find some edible morsel. He’s not fond of banana peels and coffee grounds, but he’ll eat potato peelings, perhaps even eggshells, and he’s welcome to them. We draw the line at letting him eat our cat.

Meanwhile, the mice and voles must be having a field day, living out their little gray lives under thick blankets of ice and snow amid roots and straw and family fun. But woe betide the rodent who pokes its head out into daylight! It will find that suddenly and rudely it must bid farewell to all it holds dear, for a hungry fox on his lonely rounds will certainly not be far away.

It has been a long cold challenging winter. Our ancestors must have anxiously studied their root cellars, haylofts and woodpiles this time of year. How did anyone ever make it through these difficult Canadian winters? Of course we’ve had many days when the hoarfrost has been stunningly beautiful, and others when a clean blanket of snow has turned the Island into picture postcard perfection. On one such day we decided to pack a picnic and ski down the Fox Road.

The unplowed section begins at the top of a steep hill, so it was “let ‘er go” right from the start. An hour later we were at the other end where a little lane leads down to an old millpond, and there we turned in. Although the dam was out and the water was low, there was an aura of authenticity and history to this spot. I laid mittens and scarf carefully on my skis and settled down to enjoy bread, chocolate and an orange. The sun poured down into our hideaway, the brook babbled, a squirrel scolded…and a butterfly flitted by. Wait—that’s not a butterfly, that’s a bat! Oh dear, it shouldn’t be out on such a day, but there it was, hovering lightly, then zooming away with erratic nervous flight.

So this was the dreaded white nose syndrome in action. (White nose syndrome is a fungus that grows on the wings and noses of bats.) Our little bat, coming out of hibernation, would either starve or freeze to death. I held out my hand with a crumb of bread as it seemed to be attracted either to our food or our heat, but I couldn’t get it to stop.

The sun shone a little less brightly as we packed up our gear and left this idyllic spot. There was some comfort in thinking that perhaps the bat’s body will make a meal for some hungry fox.

Pheasants Are Pleasant

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe season of flannel sheets and down-filled duvets is upon us. Let us sing the praises of luxurious bedding. And fluffy wool socks. Next Christmas I am going to cut to the chase and buy angora-blend socks for everybody, because I finally realize that fuzzy socks are a gift that keeps on giving.

Speaking of Christmas, we’ve had special visitors at our bird feeder since late December. It was a big deal one snowy day when a male ring-necked pheasant appeared out of nowhere, and it was hurry! Get the binoculars, cameras, sketch books! Then there was a second male, and finally a female joined the feeding frenzy.

I say “frenzy” because during the storms of the past month, birds have been flocking to our feeders like never before. At the 24-hour diner out front, chickadees, redpolls, juncos, goldfinches and one lovely purple finch scarf down nyger seed. In the backyard, making pigs of themselves at the mixed grain-and-sunflower feeder, are bluejays, starlings, mourning doves, crows (I admit I chase them away), juncos, and our three glorious pheasants.

We love our pheasants; but in other times and other climes someone with a gun would dispatch these beauties in a jiffy. Royalty has been especially fond of pheasants. In a friendly competition over a six-day period in December 1913, King George V shot more than a thousand pheasants, but did not win the contest.

Pheasants have apparently been in Asia since time immemorial. They breed easily in captivity and are able to take care of themselves in the wild. In the 1880s they were introduced to North America where they joined the ranks of other successfully introduced species like starlings and dandelions.

In South Dakota, hunters bag over a million pheasants a year. On Prince Edward Island, a hunter in the Cove might kill three; but I hope he doesn’t. We want our pheasants to keep jumping at berries on the burning bush, pecking at the cracked corn under the feeder, and scurrying under the honeysuckles. The males are extremely handsome with their crisp white collars, iridescent green necks, red eye patches and white beaks. The tail of the smaller male is slightly tattered as if he got in some sort of scrap, but the other cock’s tail is perfectly tapered and possibly 50 centimetres long.

The female is, well, brown. She minds her own business and is less skittish than her companions. If she makes it through the next few months she will have a brief but meaningful affair with one of the boys and shortly thereafter lay 10-15 eggs in the tall grass. Three weeks later the chicks will hatch and immediately leave the nest. Then it’s good luck to all of ye!

If pheasants can survive this winter so can we…even with metre-high snow on the roof, ice dams, loose shingles, frozen pipes, leaks, black ice, glib ice. Just remember to sleep between flannel sheets, and you’ll be okay.

Down by the Sea

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt’s still dark out when the phone rings. “It looks like a beautiful morning. Should we have coffee?” “Sounds good.” I get out the thermos and start making another pot.

The sun is barely up as we make our way through the snowy woods to the shore. The steps down to the beach have been taken up, so gingerly we let ourselves over the bank, trying to find a foothold on the ice-covered rocks. Safe and sound we are soon standing beside the sea.

Now with winter well and truly set in, the sea should settle into a quiet routine; but no, it’s different every day. Today the water is slushy, like jello, and makes a slusshing sound as the waves ripple in. Tomorrow there may be a crust of ice that will snap, crackle and pop. There will be days with wind and waves so strong that the sea will feel like the enemy rather than a reassuring friend.

Today the sea is friendly. We find smooth picnic rocks on which to spread blankets and settle ourselves. The coffee is hot and fragrant and we savor its satisfying bitterness as we nibble on slices of pannetone left over from someone’s Christmas supply. The sweet bread tastes as good as if it had just come out of some Italian oven, and we discuss the complexities of making and shipping such a delicious yet reasonably-priced loaf.

The sun gradually, almost reluctantly, rises above the horizon, bright, yet cold and distant. Even so it has enough heat to warm the icicles that hang down from dangling roots. Soon all along the edge of the cliff a gentle drip drip drip is added to the soundscape.

I leave the others and wander along the edge of the water. There is more sand here than usual. One day the beach is scoured down to the bone, the next day an immense sandbar has washed up on shore. How do snails and barnacles and sand fleas deal with such upheavals? Survival of the luckiest I suspect. Today no small creatures are in evidence, although a seagull seems to be happily snacking on something.

A few years ago just about this time of year, at this very spot, a remarkable event happened. It was a special day of celebration, so we started the morning with—what else—a walk on the shore. Right where we were sitting today, a harp seal was sunning itself on a rock! Our own silkie. It stuck around just long enough to give us a blessing, and then it was off into the icy waters. There is no silkie on the rocks this morning, just some chatty women, special people, friends of mine. Seeing them also feels like a good omen.

At my feet the sea and the New Year stretch clear and uninterrupted, full of possibilities, surprises, perhaps some miracles, maybe some disappointments, but always lots of coffee and good conversation. Happy 2014!

Don’t Get Bogged Down

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonI was feeling a little blue today. My brother out in Alberta is not well and I got caught up in one of those loops of memories and mixed emotions that seem to have no end. My brother’s a motorcycle guy. He collects old tractors, puts bicycles together from scratch, brings home washing machines from the dump and makes them work again. I’m not sure if we’d be friends if we weren’t related, but we are. The thing is, he gave me my first guitar, lent me a motorcycle for my first summer job, and bought me a set of Samsonite luggage as a high school graduation gift. He’s one of the few people who knew me when I was a child, he’s part of me and I don’t want to lose him.

My mother always said, when you’re feeling down, get busy. So this morning I dug a patch in the garden for the new garlic, put away summer lawn chairs, did a laundry, shelled a quart of brown beans, cooked a batch of apple sauce… and went cranberry picking. In the bog, life comes into perspective. No one lives forever, but I’ve had a good life and I think my brother has too. Meanwhile, here I am sloshing in rubber boots through ankle-deep water, surrounded by exotic nature and wild berries free for the picking. I love this bog. In winter it is a fantasyland of mysterious shapes and lumps; in spring it becomes a rhapsody of rhodora; in summer it turns into a frenzy of fireflies; and now it finishes its cycle of loveliness with a generous outpouring of autumn berries.

I follow my little path into the bog past bayberry, rose and raspberry bushes, and kneel down in this glistening water world. The ripest reddest cranberries are out in the sun, but when I burrow my hand into the wet moss I feel the plump berries that have spent summer nestled in their own personal paradise. One by one they plink into my empty bucket. The sound of falling berries, accompanied by the voice of a chatty squirrel, provides a gentle soundtrack for my thoughts.

A potato truck roars by, heavily laden with fat brown tubers. A few potatoes bounce out, and I pick them up for supper on my way home. As I start cleaning the cranberries in the kitchen I notice that there is a phone message waiting: it’s time to plan the bean supper, and when should we meet?

Oh yes, the Cove has settled into its comfortable fall rhythm of pleasant social activities. The cottagers have gone home, school buses are coming and going on schedule, and people are starting to think about Christmas. Plans are good things. My brother and I are talking about getting together next spring at our niece’s wedding. He wants to show me the 1927 Case Crossmount tractor he’s rebuilding.

Bar Hopping

The Cove Journal Review
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt rained all day, a heavy plodding rain straight down without let-up or interruption. Cats and dogs curled up in their usual places and slept the hours away. School children yawned as they studied their books, teachers sighed and glanced anxiously at the clock, farmers went to town. Sump pumps kicked in and rain barrels overflowed.

Then at suppertime, as if by magic, a crack appeared in the leaden clouds and blue sky forced its way through. Soon after, I heard my name called with, “Tide’s out. Shall we walk down to the shore?” Yes, yes, let’s go.

There are many places on this island that are much like the Cove, some more dramatic or dangerous or developed; but to my eyes as one who lives here, the Cove sets the standard for beauty. And this early autumn evening—this gift after the dreariness of the day—raised the bar of seaside perfection.

The word “limpid” rarely comes up in conversation (limpid: clear, transparent, pellucid), but finally I have an opportunity to use it. The air that evening could only be described as limpid. The rain had washed it free of every dust particle and imperfection, and there was the Cove laid out for our viewing pleasure, perfectly calm and clear.

The sandbars were darker than usual, almost black around the edges, with the sand, finely pitted by raindrops, resembling the coarsest grade of sandpaper. Here and there mystery holes appeared as if someone had been digging clams, except that clams no longer live on these bars.

Under the cliffs, oblivious to human presence, long-legged sandpipers and plovers scurried, heads down, intent on supper. A flock of terns bobbed gracefully in a large tidal pool, conversing amongst themselves in their tern-y way, while occasionally dipping their heads underwater for a light snack. Out on the rocky point, cormorants and harp seals dried off in pleasant companionship. As for the seagulls strutting along the water’s edge, it almost seemed that they were admiring their reflection in the still water: “Is that us? My goodness, how handsome we are!” Right on cue a blue heron came gliding over our heads, its wings cutting through the air with strength and authority.

The water was warm and inviting, perfect for feet already grown used to cool weather footwear, and we rolled up our pants to savor the summer pleasure of walking right across the Cove.  Coming back, the tide had started to turn, bringing little silver fishes in with the current. Little fishes—beware!

On our way home, steam rising from the marsh bathed our whole little world in mystery. There was just you, me, and the sea. We were suspended in that brief time between the rush of summer and the darkness of winter, and we were trying to capture every moment of daylight and warmth that we could.

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