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To the New Year!

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonLet’s end one year and begin the next with a walk along the shore. What has changed on this beautiful fragile island in the past twelve months? Is the water higher? Maybe. When we moved to the Cove thirty years ago the tide seldom came in past the bridge. Now it regularly floods all the way to the highway.

Along the capes, trees dangle over the edge and swaths of grass hang loosely like huge flaps of skin. In some places a metre or more of bank has disappeared into the sea this year. There is a cottage with only one cottage-width of lawn between it and… eternity. No one seems to be panicking.

Even the island fortress of England is susceptible to rising oceans. Madeleine Penney writes in the London Times (Eureka, June 2012 p. 31): “The East coast of England is disappearing. Made of silt, clay and sand, it shows little resistance to the waves, with the future of many homes and communities under threat.  Despite revetments, the cliffs in Happisburgh, Norfolk are receding at up to 12 m per year… A new policy of ‘managed retreat’ will see the village left to its watery fate.”

Managed retreat seems small comfort. But we must remember that change is the nature of the universe. “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” as we used to sing in the ’70s. So in December, while water and wind nibbled away at our fair shores, the people of the Cove set aside their cares and woes, put on costumes, and acted out the Nativity Scene.

I imagine families bundling into the car and heading out in the dark, with the road getting darker and windier every mile—so different from driving to the beach in the summer. “Are we there yet?” ask small voices in the back seat. Suddenly the car comes down the big hill, turns the corner by the school, and there it is, the farm all lit up “like a present” as one child described it. And that’s what it was: a present from the people of the Cove to anyone who cared to drive in. What lovely smiles we saw, and what big eyes there were in the little faces as they saw the donkeys and shepherds and the whole panorama of light. Beautiful. We cling to these warm images as we enter the season of coldness and solitary endeavors.

Thank goodness for Christmas with its eating, drinking, visiting, tinsel and evergreen boughs. And the lights, and even the waving inflatable Santas and Snowmen. When we tell ourselves, “Let’s keep it simpler next year,” we know quite well that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

So the world continues to turn. The tide ebbs and flows, the days lengthen, rabbits stretch out in their burrows, foxes pounce on field mice, grass tumbles over the cape, and here we are. Let’s lift our glasses and toast to another New Year!

We’re Keeping Busy

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe season of gingerbread houses, eggnog and fruitcake is upon us. And craft fairs. Do we need this many potholders, aprons, wall hangings, scarves, bowls, mugs, earrings, wreaths, wooden potato bins, jams, jellies, pickles, chutneys, squares and sugar cookies? No, we don’t need any of it, but since we want to support our neighbors, and everything looks so nice, we end up buying mittens, Christmas ornaments and potholders. They’ll make nice gifts for friends.

I also pick up a new book of Island history titled Afton: a place in time. Three cheers for the historians of the Rocky Point peninsula! They have put together a grand little book, full of wholesome nutritious facts nicely spiced with anecdotes and photographs. I am now considerably better informed about the lobster cannery on St. Peters Island, the starch factory at Westville, and lives of the Mi’kmak at Rocky Point. These tidbits may come in handy at a Christmas party when I am short of small talk.

Wait. This is not the time for small talk: there’s work to be done. We’re holding a Living Nativity in the Cove, and it takes time to line up all the angels, wise men, shepherds, and Josephs and Marys, plus put up posters, and arrange for choir practice. The donkeys and Tessa the horse were stars of last year’s Nativity and say they don’t need to practice at all. We’ll see. We hope that the goat has been told not to chew on the wise men’s sashes.

The Living Nativity is raising money for the Upper Room Food Bank, and our little one room schoolhouse. After all, what is a community without a place to meet, and where else would we hold our Christmas Concert? For we must have a concert, featuring as many kids as can fit on stage singing off-key. Proud parents will strain to hear a small voice reciting (in a monotone and without a break), “Tomorrow-is-Christmas-I-hope-there-will-be-some-presents-from-mommy-and-daddy-for-me…” There will be the usual step dancing, poems, skits and minor mishaps, Santa will make his appearance, the emcee will draw the winner of the gingerbread house, and we’ll all go home smiling.

This afternoon let’s put all that aside and head to the Cove. The beach belongs to the gulls and ducks, and to us, now that the geese and tourists have flown south. Last week the Cove was churned up by strong winds that washed in huge piles of seaweed and flotsam. Today everything is calm and quiet with the low sun casting long shadows and bathing the landscape in cool soft light. The coastline changes daily, yet remains the same. Like a good friend.

We walk below the cliffs on slippery black rocks where periwinkles and whelks snuggle together in cracks. Ice crystals crunch underfoot, reminding us that winter is just around the corner. We welcome this season too.

Woops! Better scoot home and get those shortbread cookies in the oven. Merry Christmas!

Old bones

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Illustration by JoDee SamuelsonWith the wind blowing impetuously and chestnuts in their sharp casings crashing onto the roof like small bombs, this is a good day to be inside by the fire. I’m kind of glad I’m not out holding a HONK sign on the Trans Canada.

I can’t help thinking of those folks who were camped last month down by the hemlocks on Peter’s Road. They had a lot of rain, and the campsite was damp and muddy. We brought them some cake and sandwiches and hung around by the old hemlocks for awhile, wondering what is it about hemlock trees that makes them special. Here’s what I found.

The Eastern hemlock, Tsuga Canadensis, takes 250 years to reach maturity and can live 400 years or more. These trees grow best in moist soil with good drainage, and have few natural enemies besides man. Hemlock bark is rich in tannin and was once shipped off Island by the barrelful for use in the leather industry. Imagine how many trees there must have been!

In olden days, hemlock beams were used for barn floors because of their resistance to rot. A tea made from the inner bark was used by native people as a remedy for colds, fevers, diarrhea, stomach troubles and scurvy. The bark was used as a poultice to slow bleeding.

When travel writer Walter Johnstone visited PEI in 1820, he saw hemlock trees 3 feet in diameter and 80 feet high. The hemlocks at Peter’s Road are smaller than this, but impressive nonetheless. They may be 250 years old which means they sprouted in 1760 or about the time that Europeans first settled on PEI.

Robert Harris wrote about the Bonshaw Hills (Island Prose and Poetry, 1973, p. 55). He was out with a team of surveyors who were cutting a line through the woods for proprietor Robert Stewart of Strathgartney when they encountered a threatening group of feisty locals coming “full tear up the hill waving heavy sleigh stakes.” Harris and his compatriots beat a hasty retreat.

I like to think that Robert Harris would have enjoyed the ruckus on Peter’s Road. He probably would have made friends with the protesters and painted a picture of the campsite.

Nature Trust’s booklet Scenic Heritage Roads of PEI has this to say about Peter’s road: “A sense of history, both human and natural, prevails on this pleasant country lane.” There was once a sawmill and furniture factory here. On top of the hill just up from the protester’s campsite is a small pioneer cemetery, the resting place for families stricken by diphtheria 100 years ago. Hopefully the construction won’t be disturbing those old bones that have already suffered enough.

It’s time to go down and throw another log on the fire. Supper will be simple tonight and it will feel good to turn in early.

Into Autumn

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonDid you ever see such a summer for apples? They’re everywhere, on the ground, floating down streams, and more importantly, in our pies and applesauce. How did the trees find enough water this summer to make apples, let alone make them delicious? On a similar topic, how did the cucumbers get so juicy when their roots are such little bits of things?

There was no cucumber shortage this summer. Women in the Cove are counting their jars of chow, mustard pickles, tomato sauce and dilly beans. My own mother was a great woman for canning. One year she put up seven hundred jars of preserves! I expect many of our mothers did the same, and this on top of all the other demands of life in days gone by.

Life still has its demands. Autumn brings people back together after the great summer scattering. Women’s Institute meetings are starting up, children are doing homework, evening classes are being organized. A certain quiet beauty descends upon the land. Some sounds we don’t miss: lawn mowers and dirt bikes. Sounds we welcome: school buses, the comforting rumble of tractors and potato harvesters working into the night, geese flying overhead.

Night closes in around us all too soon and we seize the warm bright daylight hours for chores that suddenly appear urgent, chores like checking the roof for loose shingles, cleaning leaves from the rain gutters, putting away gardening tools, and getting out warm socks and wool sweaters in the big summer-to-winter-clothes switcheroo.

In the crimson tinted woods the squirrels are busily stashing away chestnuts, butternuts, even apple seeds, while blue jays appear at backyard feeders demanding to be fed. Honeybees are in their winter beeyards snacking on sugar syrup, bumblebees have gone underground, mice are hopefully scritching at the walls, cats are fat and sleek. October is a busy happy month.

It’s also the month of our community bean supper. We had a meeting last week to plan the supper. We chose the date, had a cup of tea, talked some more, decided to ask Kay if she’d do the beans again. Can’t hurt to ask. She’s in Halifax visiting her sister, should we call her?  We call her. Yes, she’ll make them. Great! Next morning, we get a call from Kay to let us know that onions are on sale at the Co-op, two bags for the price of one. Will we pick some up for the beans? Of course. We’ll call people about biscuits and pies closer to the date. That’s the way things get done in the Cove and everywhere else.

Thanksgiving is coming up. Well, we have a lot to be thankful for. We had a grand summer, we didn’t get flooded like Truro, we didn’t have a blizzard like Iceland, we don’t have a federal election next month, and we have buckets of applesauce in the freezer. It doesn’t get much better.

Warm Waters

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Art by JoDee SamuelsonYesterday we were swimming in the Cove. Because it was an overcast day and the sea was choppy we were the only people in the water. Some terns were calling noisily back and forth as they sped overhead on their way to a destination known only to themselves. A pair of seagulls paced restlessly along the sandbar, lost in thought. We swam out further and there just ahead of us bobbing in the water was a lone double-crested cormorant, body submerged, head and neck held aloft. Every so often, wings flapping madly, it raised itself out of the water before it sank back down. This action was repeated so often that we started thinking that (a) its wings were waterlogged, (b) it didn’t have the strength to fly, or (c) it was dying. For surely cormorants must die too.

How seldom we see dead cormorants, crows, or seagulls for all that there seem to be so many around. This summer I found a dead crow on the road and took it home to hang in the cherry tree, having read somewhere that this might discourage other crows from landing there. It didn’t work. They avoided that particular branch, but my roadkill crow had been so thoroughly flattened by traffic that it did not actually resemble a crow any more. Maybe I needed a plumper crow. In any case the smell was undesirable all round, so with great difficulty I extricated the corpse from the tree and gave it a proper burial.

Returning to that struggling cormorant, which we had already started, mildly, to grieve. As we watched it thrashing about, something else caught our attention and we looked away. When we looked back the cormorant was in the air. As it skimmed across the horizon out of sight I marveled again at how little we know about our fellow creatures. That cormorant must have been fishing and may even have been somewhat annoyed at these humans invading its space. How will we ever know?

What I do know is that this has been an extraordinary summer. One day after another of tranquil beauty, sunshine and glorious wildflowers. We reluctantly bid farewell to the fireweed and phlox, Queen Anne’s lace, yarrow, and the many delightful roadside clovers. As we move into autumn everything changes, the sky, the clouds, the light, the colors. We can almost hear the earth heaving a great sigh of relief.

We too heave a sigh as we step back from the pleasures of summer and try to catch up on those jobs we’ve been putting off, like cleaning the fridge. (Woah, what’s this lump at the back? Have I been keeping that cold all summer?) Then there’s wood to move into the shed, crops to harvest, and for some, children to get off to school.

And first things first: we must make time for that daily swim. The water’s never been warmer and the cormorants can take care of themselves.

A Visit to Our Town

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonWhat with keeping the crows out of the cherry tree, chasing cabbage moths and weeding the garden, summer has been flying by. But all work and no play makes a long tiring day, so we decided to head to Montgomery Theatre in North Rustico for the opening of Our Town.

North Rustico is a fancier and busier place than “the crik” of the past, when fishermen were still filling barrels with cod and herring, Irish moss was drying in driveways, and bootleggers were open for business. These days Rustico has fancy houses, big restaurants, and the Montgomery Theatre. This amiable little theatre is up the hill from Fisherman’s Wharf, across from Stella Maris Church and next door to Star of the Sea Senior Citizens Club. You can’t miss it. The theatre isn’t quite the heart of the village but it’s a special place, a place where dreams come to life on a simple stage.

So here we are on the deck of the theatre, milling around, chatting with friends and strangers and enjoying the warm summer evening. Is there time to get a drink? Why not? Oh wait—we’re being called in. We settle into comfortable rattan chairs, ready to watch one of the most famous American plays of the early 1900s.

The stage is empty except for two chairs, and as the lights dim the narrator steps up to speak: “This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder and produced by…”

We are told the location of the play (Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire), the date (May 7, 1901) and the time (5:45 am). As other characters enter and become part of the scene, we soon realize that Grover’s Corners resembles North Rustico, or Kensington or Mount Stewart, or the Cove for that matter. “In our town we like to know the facts about everybody,” states the narrator. Isn’t that the way of small communities everywhere?

The cast moves effortlessly through this gentle comedy and we move with them. Our Town covers the big topics in our lives, birth, marriage and death, familiar themes to all of us and at the core of life no matter where we live. The most memorable scene is the final act in the cemetery where the dead speak about the living, and we were reminded of how precious life is even in its most mundane moments.

Of course we can’t go through life dwelling on every single second, but it’s good to remember that we should live in the present without obsessing about the past or fearing the future. Life and death are part of the same process, and it’s all good.

What a wonderful thing it is to go out in the evening and come home refreshed. A beautiful play! Thank you, cast and crew of Montgomery Theatre. Meanwhile, back to the Cove and the crows and the cabbage butterflies. Somehow I feel better about them now too.

Rob Roy stars as the Stage Manager in Montgomery Theatre’s production of Our Town, which is directed by Duncan McIntosh. Playing lead roles are Stephen Hair, Gordon Hecht and Laurie Campbell.

Ancestry PEI

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonHaving recently traveled to Sweden in search of ancestral roots, I return to this my chosen island and ask: what is it about Prince Edward Island that makes it unique? It is an island, yes, surrounded by water with all the distinction this implies. But there are lots of islands in the world, 30,000 islands in the Stockholm Archipelago alone.

Is it our potatoes? I think they taste better than most, but the potatoes in Sweden were delicious too. Is it our white churches dotting the countryside? Sweden has hundreds of white churches, some of them a thousand years old. What about our wildflowers, wild strawberries, lupins and clover? Guess what: other places have flowers too. The Swedish roads were lined with lilacs in full bloom.  (And the roads don’t have potholes!)

Is it our love of history here on PEI that appeals to me? Maybe we’re doing the best we can; but Stockholm has eighty museums, and the island of Gotland, which is smaller than PEI, has more museums and heritage sites than you can shake a stick at.

We pride ourselves on our hospitality, imagining ourselves to be friendlier than people elsewhere. True, Swedish people are rather formal and reserved, but we met a woman at the ferry terminal who smiled at us and ended up inviting us to spend the night at her place.

So, back in the swing of things here in the Cove I keep looking around to see what it is that makes me feel such affection for this place. Maybe it’s the red soil, so generous and easy to work, that appeals to the gardener in me. Or, being an artist, I am attracted by the complimentary colors of our landscape, especially now when our fields have been worked and new growth is pushing through. The reds and greens, blues and whites make a palette that is almost impossible to replicate.

And I do love our people. It warms my heart to hear my friends say, “I’ve missed you!” Down at the church folks are planting flowers in the cemetery on graves not of my ancestors, but of my friends’ families. It feels like the same thing. The church is all painted up and stands proudly facing the sea, as it has done ever since 1872. If the people of the Cove keep taking care of it, some day it too will be a thousand years old.

Meanwhile, our garden is almost in and everything is doing well. We’re eating our own lettuce and radishes and have high hopes for a successful tomato crop this year. Everyone is trading plants back and forth, and in fact we still have some extra cucumbers in case anyone wants them. I’ve been over at the old school where the carpenters (the nicest men I’ve ever met) are doing renovations to the porch and laying new flooring throughout. The old school is going to look fabulous for our Strawberry Social in July.

It’s good to be back.

Knowledge Economy

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Eggs by JoDee SamuelsonOur Island is suddenly green and sparkling clean. We have no time to look away or even blink now that summer is coming. Everything happens with such speed and intensity, one miracle following the next, dandelions, violets, elderflowers, and lupins before we know it.

Some robins have built their nest at eye level in a honeysuckle bush by our door. Any cat with a bit of imagination could easily turn this little homestead into a disaster, but so far the three blue eggs remain intact.

Down at the shore last month we came across the largest worm any of us had seen, about eight inches long, flat underside with red blood vessels running its length.

Research back home gave us its name: the clamworm. It comes out of the sand to mate in the spring, during the dark of the moon. That morning we found three clamworms. The next day I brought my camera and we found none.

Another spring miracle: rhubarb. The Rhubarb Social in the Cove is coming up, with an amazing assortment of rhubarb desserts. Rhubarb juice too. It’s easy to make: Chop rhubarb, cover well with water, stew till soft (only a few minutes). Strain, sweeten with honey or sugar, and chill. Serve in small clear glasses that do justice to its delicate pink hue.

Rhubarb stems became popular in the 1600s once sugar became affordable (New World/sugarcane/slavery etc.); but rhubarb roots have been used as a laxative for thousands of years. Years ago on the Greenbay Road we came across a field dotted with clumps of rhubarb. The field was a cow pasture by this time, but in by-gone days all that rhubarb must have been bound for a market somewhere.

Speaking of the olden days, the other day I visited my friend Marjorie.  She met me at the door with, “I remembered something that I wanted to tell you. Do you know how rug hooks were made?”  (No, I didn’t.)

“The wire part was made from the tine of an old pitchfork. You’d have a blacksmith cut it and shape the hook, and attach a handle. The handle was made just for you so you could hold the hook the way you liked because everyone hooked rugs differently. Hooking a rug is a good way to use up old coats and blankets.

“And did you know that when you make a batch of potted meat, if it’s too much to use at once you can freeze it? Of course when you thaw it out it will be runny, but if you bring it to the boil it will re-set.”

Thank heavens for knowledgeable friends! I feel like running to the store for a pork hock and whipping up some potted meat this very minute. But before I do that I suppose I should do something with all this rhubarb. I think I’ll make a crisp. And I wonder if those robin eggs have hatched yet?

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