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Spring lamb

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonNothing says spring like a lamb. Its little bleat declares: “I’m alive so let’s go!” A Swiss family in the Cove has a whole barn full of sheep, so I thought I’d visit them and get fully charged with a dose of spring lamb.

The Mäders’ new barn has a domed plastic roof and plenty of room inside. Fredy and Elsbeth and son Levi cut trees from their woods, milled their own lumber, put in the posts (we all admired how perfectly straight they were), boarded in the barn, purchased sheep…and now their 30 ewes have given birth to 50 butting, bleating, prancing lambs.

I ask, “Are you happy with your barn?” Fredy: “The sheep need Vitamin D and the plastic roof gives lots of light so that’s good. But it’s humid inside and the roof drips on a day like this. We leave both ends open for ventilation. Those old wooden barns were drier and warmer but this one is cheaper. It’s a work in progress. We brace something different with every strong wind!”

“Will the sheep go outside in summer?” Elsbeth: “The ewes go out, but not the lambs. There are parasites in the soil and the lambs might die. We tried medications but the worms are resistant to them. After two years the ewes get along okay.”

Fredy: “Also there are coyotes. Their footprints were all around the barn—”

Mirya (daughter, in shocked voice): “They took our big orange cat!”

Fredy: “—but the worst is the bald eagles. They’ll pick up a lamb and that will be the end of it. Maybe they kill bigger sheep too. I don’t want to find out.”

“What kind of sheep are they?” Elsbeth: “The ram is a purebred Dorper. [A South African breed, the name being a combination of Dorset and Persian.] They’re supposed to shed their hair and they don’t need so much grain.”

Fredy: “In Canada farmers feed a lot of grain to their animals but in Switzerland grain is expensive. Here we buy about 8 tonnes of mixed barley and supplements a year.”

Elsbeth: “The ewes are Rideau Arcott, a Canadian breed that has lots of babies. All of our lambs were twins or triplets. We keep them until they weigh 50 kg and then they go to the slaughterhouse at Truro. I think Sobey’s buys them.”

Fredy: “We shear the flock in July. We hire a lady with big muscles who can shear 30 sheep in an hour and a half!”

I notice a pen with pregnant ewes. I ask: “How do you know when a ewe is about to give birth?” Elsbeth smiles: “When you see a head at the front and the back!” We both laugh. As I’m leaving, the ewes have finished their breakfast and as if on cue they all lie down and start chewing their cud. No more nursing for now, so the lambs do what babies do: they take naps too.

Bon courage

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonFebruary’s slush is giving way to March’s … slush? I recently heard an elderly lady remark that “This winter has been very unsatisfactory.” We have certainly experienced water in a variety of liquid and solid states. At present our garden is under water, but the ground is frozen so it’s possible that the garlic will survive.

The forest has also taken a beating. Many tall spruce trees, slender soft-hearted giants, found that the freezing rain and blustery winds were more than they could bear. One lies sprawled on the frozen ground, undignified, naked roots up-turned and exposed like a maze; while another has toppled onto its neighbors and is being held up by a gnarled apple tree, veteran of a hundred years war with nature.

The farmer goes along the hedgerows clearing the deadfall, his chain saw screaming and echoing across the landscape. No farmer has ever been able to say, “Now I’m done, I can relax.” Even in winter there is always something to do.

Whether you are a farmer, or a grand old tree living out your life on the edge of the woods, life in Northern climes has always required a special kind of courage. In an interview during the Olympics, freestyle mogul silver medalist Justine Dufour-Lapointe said something like this: “I’m proud to show the strength that Canadians have, to withstand the cold…” We don’t have one word to describe this, but maybe we should.

At the supermarket checkout recently, a magazine headline caught my eye: “Beat the winter blues with Swedish Happiness Secrets.” I wonder what those secrets might be. I am Swedish and spent my whole childhood surrounded by Swedish people, and I’m pretty sure that none of these worthy folks thought they had any happiness secrets. Life was hard in rural Alberta and everyone was just making the best of things.

For Christmas you may have been given “The Little Book of Hygge” that lets you in on Danish Happiness Secrets. Denmark consistently gets #1 world ranking for happiness so the Danes must know something. Hygge is “the intimacy you create several times a day, on purpose, in order to make life bearable or even very good.” It involves a lot of food, candles and warm slippers.—Hey, on the Island we do hygge pretty well.

The Finnish people talk about Sisu: “Stamina and courage held in reserve for hard times.” It’s a great word, although not exactly a Finnish Happiness Secret. I think that most Canadians possess sisu in abundance, as does our flora and fauna. Certainly those fallen spruce trees had plenty of courage until—well, it wasn’t their fault that they blew over. Their feet were wet, the ground was soft, then along came a nor’easter and over they went. Very unsatisfactory.

But the earth will dry up soon. Baby spruce trees will appear as if by magic to take their parents’ place, and this winter will become a distant memory. Hang in there! Bon courage!

Perspective

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe story of our winter so far: bare ground, skiff of snow, wind, rain, plus ten, minus fifteen, wind, rain, snow. Stoves and furnaces putting in long hours, working overtime, greedily gobbling up fuel. Frosty air stealing in all night long under shingles and between floorboards, and barging in through doors that open for a single moment. What a time. The Strait is completely filled in with ice—something we haven’t seen for years—and somehow that feels good, like the welcome visit of a long lost friend.

No matter what the weather we try to spend some of the day outside. Ski conditions haven’t been great, but there’s often been enough snow to scoot along on the edge of fields. And the frozen fields themselves have been perfect for long hikes—although clumpy plowed ground can get tedious.

And is anything better than an outdoor winter picnic? Yesterday we had an impromptu birthday party for our neighbor’s daughter who was home after working as a chef in New Zealand for two years. (Yes, Culinary Institute grads do find work around the world.) This proved once again that the very best conversations happen at the seaside. The food tastes better and amenities can be kept to a minimum (though blankets under the butt are a must). Our friend’s birthday scones—made with cream, not butter—merited lengthy discussion. As did recent dental procedures, the mountains of ice at Cape Traverse, and American politics.

Why are we so blessed? We live in this wonderful place. We have friends, food and firewood. When our garbage bin was blown into the ditch and lost a wheel, all we had to do was fill in a form on-line and presto! a replacement bin magically appeared in our driveway. Sure, sometimes we have to wait in the hospital emergency room longer than we wish, but we do eventually get seen—and we aren’t charged anything.

I’m reading Hilary Clinton’s book How It Happened and it’s almost unbearable to think of the serious problems our American neighbors face. There are 33,000 gun-related deaths a year in the USA, or 90 deaths a day. That’s just crazy. Now there’s the opiod crisis. And the racial tensions that never seem to go away. And wildfires, and mudslides, and hurricanes …

Of course everything’s not perfect in Canada, but at least we don’t have millions of handguns in our houses. And we all have medical coverage and don’t need to worry about losing our homes if we get sick.

So whatever kind of winter we’re having, whether it’s cold one day and warm the next, or snowing or raining, we really have nothing to complain about. Our roads are cleared, our power comes back on, we get a new garbage bins when the old ones break—and The Buzz has come out each month, rain or shine, for twenty-five years. That’s amazing.

I mean, how lucky can we get?

Needles and cones

The Cove Journal

by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonThe winter solstice has come and gone. We’re on the up-swing now! As the sun rises higher in the sky, every day grows a little longer. Thanks to everyone in the countryside who put up colored lights for the holidays. What a lift they give us during this darkest time of the year. I suppose they wouldn’t be such a treat if they were up all year.

The same holds true for Christmas trees. They quickly lose their charm once their needles start traveling around the house.

During a recent walk, my friend Kay mentioned that we know almost nothing about the trees that we so eagerly invite into our homes in December. They’re evergreens, yes, but what kind? And what’s the difference between a fir and a spruce tree?

Here’s what I learned.

The tree that was in our house, and is now out by the bird feeder, is a spruce. Like all spruce trees, its needles (leaves) are 4-sided in cross-section and grow around the stem out of little wooden “pegs.” All spruce trees produce cones that hang down a short distance from the tip of the branch. Our little tree is too young to produce cones (seeds), but its full-grown parent trees dropped their cones all over the driveway in autumn, so it’s safe to say that it’s a Picea glauca or white spruce. Picea mariana or black spruce hang onto their cones all winter.

Our tree was definitely not a fir. Fir trees have flattened needles, blunt at the end, that are attached to the stem by what one might call suction cups. Fir cones grow upright. When they mature in autumn their seeds fall off, leaving behind lonely abandoned spikes.

The fragrant Balsam fir, Abes balsamea, is our most popular Christmas tree. When its needles become hidden in the carpet, they pierce stocking feet less aggressively than spruce needles. In fact, a pile of fir boughs makes a fairly comfy mattress.

Spruce and fir trees are more than just ubiquitous shapes in the Island landscape. Spruce extracts have been used for healing wounds, soothing sore muscles, treating scurvy, easing arthritic pain. Rotted spruce was dried and pulverized to make baby powder. Spruce resin became a commercially popular chewing gum.

As for fir trees, their resin was used as a fire-starter, a salve, an adhesive. Today if you have a bad cough, you can still buy Buckley’s Cough Syrup. One of its tasty ingredients: balsam fir extract. Yum.

Kind of makes you appreciate that tree you dragged to the side of the road, doesn’t it.

Summary. To tell fir and spruce trees apart, remember that fir needles are flat, spruce needles are square; fir cones grow up, spruce cones grow down.

The old year is behind us and the New Year tingles with possibilities. Never chewed spruce gum? Maybe 2018 is the year to give it a try. You may learn to like it. We have plenty of spruce trees in the Cove and we’re always glad to share a little sap with our neighbors.

Happy New Year!

Hello winter

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonWell, hello winter! One day we were blithely raking leaves in t-shirts and shorts, and the next day we were bundling up against a fierce north wind and brushing snow from our doorsteps. It would be nice to blame Daylight Savings Time for all this, but of course that can’t be true. Fortunately our stunningly beautiful fall weather gave everyone, from farmers and gardeners to road crews and roofers, plenty of time to “finish the job properly.” And I must say the Island looks very smart and trim as we head into December.

I can finally tolerate hearing Christmas music in stores. In fact, I find myself humming along with everything. Christmas is the one time of year when we all know the first verse of dozens of songs, and even adults who protest “But I can’t sing” can sometimes be persuaded to open their mouths and make a joyful noise.

The Cove is bursting with seasonal activities including, for one last time, a drive-through Living Nativity at the Jenkins’ farm. Chrys, Gordon and Jamie are hanging lights and stars, building a shelter for the choir, lining up guest livestock, and generally preparing a one-of-a-kind nativity show. Who would put all that effort into such a big funky unlikely light-up-the-sky event? Well, Chrys and Doreen and all their friends in the Cove, that’s who. It’s the most cheerful way ever invented to raise money for Santa’s Angels.

When the Living Nativity is over there’ll be the Christmas Concert at the old school featuring local talent young and old, a homemade play, a visit from Santa, and lunch of course. (Can you have an event in the country without lunch?) Tucked in here and there are a half-dozen Open Houses when neighbors gather at various homes to discuss the events of the day and have a bite to eat. Do we get tired of seeing each other so often? Not at all. We’re filling up with warmth and happiness to tide us through the long cold months ahead.

While we humans snack on fruitcake and chocolate, our local wildlife is also enjoying the bounty of the season. Two flying squirrels have taken up residence in our woodpile, conveniently close to everything they like to eat: butternuts, chestnuts, spruce cones, lichen. Northern flying squirrels are as cute as rodents can get, with their shiny round eyes (for nocturnal vision), fluffy flat tails and little round ears. We’re going to let them live out the winter just where they are. It’s amazing to see them soaring from tree to tree, flat as frisbees: they can glide up to 300 feet! 

Along the capes, bayberry shrubs proudly display their waxy grey-blue fruits. Scarlet winterberries glow in the afternoon sun. Down at the shore, periwinkles snuggle into sandstone cracks, prepared to sit out the vagaries of winter weather. The final season of the year is here and we’re ready.

Little Drummer Boy, Il est né le divin enfant, O tannenbaum: Welcome December!

Clear skies

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonIt was one of those clear calm evenings when you could feel the temperature dropping as the sun sank below the tree line. We picked all the cucumbers and squash, wrapped a blanket snugly around the climbing tomatoes, and reluctantly went indoors. Time to face the music and start a fire in the woodstove.

Sitting by the stove with a glass of wine felt just right; but a long dark night—one of many to come—was staring us in the face. So we decided to walk up the hill and pay a visit to our hilltop neighbors. They’re the kind of people who love to have friends drop in unannounced, and no matter if it’s day or night you’re always assured of a cup of tea and a freshly baked biscuit or piece of pie, or in our case a slice of gumdrop cake. Hospitality like that is a real gift.

We had a lovely time eating cake, discussing our respective Thanksgiving celebrations, and making plans to start a jigsaw puzzle in the near future. Then we said our good-byes and headed into the night. The moonless sky was filled with stars that clearly spelled out, “There will be a frost tonight.” No matter: we’re used to the changing seasons. We have all the clothes we need to keep warm, we have boxes of our own potatoes in the cellar, and our freezer is full of delicious things to eat. So with flashlight in hand we marched cheerfully down the hill.

But then a coyote howled nearby—although you can’t really call it a howl for it’s more like other-worldly speech. Then other coyotes joined in. Yap yap yap! It sounded like a lot of them. Our pace picked up.

It’s strange how sometimes distances seem so much greater than at other times. We passed Susan’s where here was a light on in the kitchen: that was comforting. But how distant the next house seemed! Still, with every step the coyote chorus receded, and then we were at our neighbor’s barn with its welcoming yard light, and finally we were home. What had we been worried about anyway?

When the sun rose the next morning it was evident that indeed there had been a heavy frost, for every blade of grass was encrusted with a shimmering white coat. Down at the Cove everything was hushed and still. The tide had crept in and out overnight with scarcely a ripple, leaving the sandbars perfectly smooth and pristine. Gulls and crows were carefully examining glistening clumps of rockweeds and kelp fronds scattered on the beach. Some plovers or sandpipers scooted along the tidal pools enjoying the breakfast buffet, and perhaps admiring their own feathery reflection in the tranquil waters.

It had been a clear night and now it was a clear day. The sun’s warmth melted the frost and warmed our hearts, and wild creatures of the darkness seemed very far away.

Painted Ladies

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonOur cat Huckleberry didn’t come home the other night. We called and called but no gray cat with handsome striped tail showed up, so the lights were turned out and we went to bed. The next morning he still wasn’t around. Our various neighbors hadn’t seen him and it was suggested we go along the road looking in the ditch. No cat in ditches, fortunately, or in culverts.

In the late afternoon we walked to the meadow across the way. Pushing aside sun-warmed pockets of cottony fireweed and goldenrod blossoms nodding benevolently in the breeze, we moved into a clearing when suddenly hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies burst into the air, flitting hither and yon as only butterflies can. Everywhere we looked we saw more of these lovely creatures clinging to goldenrod petals or balancing delicately on silvery fireweed leaves, their wings pulsing gently.

Why hadn’t we noticed them before? I guess we’d been worrying about our cat Huckleberry and feeling generally down, what with the news about hurricanes and earthquakes and other global malaise; but when we looked up, our Island world was full of Painted Ladies. Back home we watched butterflies swooping over the treetops from the northeast and dipping through the yard before heading purposefully south. What would happen when they got to the shore? We went down to the Cove to watch, and it was amazing: hundreds—thousands—of butterflies zooming over our heads in some sort of mass migration and heading out to sea as if to say, “Amherst, here we come!”

How little we know about the life around us. We humans think we’re busy right now with our harvesting and preserving and getting ready for winter, but Painted Ladies live perhaps two weeks in the butterfly stage, during which time they have to flutter around and look beautiful, mate, lay eggs, and have some sort of meaningful experiences (one hopes). Butterflies and all the other creatures great and small must not like hurricanes any more than we do, and one wonders why Painted Ladies showed up in such numbers just now.

But back to Huckleberry. Hours passed and still no cat. The only place we hadn’t looked was the freshly harrowed seagull-filled field behind our house. Kitty kitty!…What was that? A tiny meow? Kitty kitty! Sure enough, a gray cat was wa-a-ay up in a tree, looking and sounding mighty pitiful.

So the cat came back, and we can relax.

Geese are passing noisily overhead. Mountain ashes are drooping with bouquets of waxy orange-red berries, and spruce trees are absolutely laden with cones: our neighbor said that she heard spruce cones popping open! That seems impossible, but I looked closely at a sappy spruce cone and sure enough, it has to pop open. Check for yourself.

A few Painted Lady butterflies linger among the golden fall flowers, reluctant to leave this beautiful Island; and who can blame them?

The Other Side

The Cove
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonLocal folklore has it that when you can see The Other Side clearly, it’s going to rain, which must be because the air pressure is falling and there are fewer molecules of dust and moisture over the water to impede your view. At those times Nova Scotia looks close enough to reach out and touch, and it’s easy to imagine our earliest people making the trip across the Strait in their delicate crafts, no problem.

From the edge of the Cove, the other side is a strip of soft blue that beckons enticingly. Funny thing: when you go across the bridge and look back at the Island, our own strip of land is bathed in the same gentle light. It seems that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side of the fence (or in this case the Strait): it’s merely remote. That tantalizing remoteness is so powerful that once again we make our way over to the campground at Amherst Shore.

The first night a quiet duo from Québec is nestled down in the next campsite. In the morning they pack up their little orange tent and head on their way. A few hours later an SUV pulling a utility trailer rolls in, and a mom and dad and three children proceed to colonize the area. Cheerfully but noisily. Two enormous tents (one for sleeping and one for the table) are laboriously set up, and a huge tarp is strung up over the space between the two tents. I never thought I would see anyone bring an extension ladder to a campground, but that tarp needs a long rope tied up high in a tree so along comes Dad with his ladder. “No help needed, just leave me alone.” Impressive by any standards.

A campground is an intimate window into life. People party enthusiastically into the night. Voices carry. Tempers boil over. Children scream, laugh, run, tumble, and are encouraged or reprimanded as the case may be. Small children share their parent’s toilet stall and discuss every detail of the proceedings. A campground is not for everyone and sometimes a little goes a long ways.

The next morning it’s raining so we throw everything in the car and head home. Has the Island ever had so many summer visitors? The traffic on the bridge is non-stop both ways. Some guests of ours insisted we go to Cavendish last month and I must say the North Shore is a world away from our own Cove reality. Where are all these people coming from?

It’s good to be back. Our roadsides overflow with Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susans, and the potatoes march in straight lines to the horizon. Being away for even two days makes me appreciate the beauty of this place. Now that all our guests have departed, there is the garden to rediscover, the grass to mow and the friends to visit.

But that strip of soft blue on the horizon still beckons, and we’re already talking about another trip to The Other Side.

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