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Perennial Sale

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Artwork by JoDee SamuelsonOh you darling buds of May, how we welcome each one of you! Cheerful crocuses and daffodils, do not leave us so soon! Oh well, at least you’re here now and we’re going to love every minute of your presence. Spring is always a miracle. Life returning to these shores, sun ascending, red soil gleaming, fish jumping, children and puppies rolling in the warm earth, featherless baby birds falling out of nests. It’s all immediate and transient and wonderful.

But this is not a time to sit back and relax: we must get ready for our Spring Perennial Sale. Cove women, mostly, are potting violets, phlox, ribbon grass (beware!), foxglove, oregano, spearmint, rhubarb, peonies, sedum, matricaria, rose campion, jacob’s ladder, bee balm, lungwort, mugwort… How can anyone not love a perennial sale? Everything is cheap, and a perennial is truly a gift that keeps on giving. As for manure, how can you garden without it?

One of the Cove’s advantages for an event like this is that we have a cove. That sky blue (or grey) water is the perfect backdrop for green shoots and sprouts. Muffins and coffee don’t hurt either. Thank goodness for perennials! They ask nothing of us but occasional ruthless thinning. No one minds sharing a clump of daylilies—in fact, please take some more.

The road out from town is pretty good now that the frost heaves have settled and we’ve had time to get personally acquainted with this year’s potholes. How about spending that Bonshaw/Strathgartney Trans-Canada highway infrastructure money on pothole and bridge repair? A skiff of new pavement here and there wouldn’t hurt either. No one will object to these ventures and every politician will earn plenty of Brownie points.

Folks in the Cove aren’t quite sure what Plan B is all about. Is it to make things easier for truckers? Our small hills must seem modest enough to anyone who’s driven on Maine’s Airline Highway or through the Charlevoix region of Quebec or in the Rocky Mountains or along California’s Coastal Route. Truckers seem a hardy independent breed, not looking for sympathy. Surely fuel prices cause them more distress than hills.

We have one long hill leading down into the Cove. Sometimes in winter it can be a bit treacherous but we want to keep it. We don’t have enough hills! We wish they were higher! PEI had to build its own ski hill! In the good old days, horses had to strain to pull heavy loads up hills and there was some reason to complain if a road was too steep; but today every vehicle on the Island can make it up any hill that we can throw at it.

Does everything have to be practical and useful? To quote Zen master Zhuangzi (ca 300 BC): “All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.” Are hostas useful? Who knows, but they sure can grow. See you at the Perennial Sale.

Nature Walk

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Art by JoDee SamuelsonWe take an evening walk along the shore, on the ice, still bright out, one week left till the Spring Equinox. The ice cracks below our feet: should we be walking here? “It’s low tide. We’ll only fall a few feet.” Ahead there is an open area where springs have melted the ice. We’ll give that a wide berth.

A large flock of geese flies overhead, the largest we’ve seen, each bird driven on by a force it cannot resist. In No Great Mischief Alistair MacLean writes (p. 260):
“When the Canada geese fly north in spring, there is a leader who points the way, a leader at the apex of the V as the formation moves across the land. Those who follow must believe that the leader is doing the best he can, but there is no guarantee that all journeys will end in salvation for everyone involved.”

How disappointed these geese must be to find the Island still snow-covered. Quite a bit of grumbling going on about the leader’s instincts this time. “It’s the same old story, we’ll have to make do with soybeans (ugh, hate ‘em), wet oats and frozen potatoes.”

Back on land I pass under a spruce tree, and an eagle flies out—right over my head. “Quick, look!” It all happens so quickly and I am walking eyes to the ground, so I miss everything, don’t even catch a glimpse of the eagle. Still, I feel very special and tell myself that I heard its wings.

A beech leaf is on the ground, then another. Have the beech trees actually dropped their leaves? All winter long the beech leaves shiver and rattle but remain firmly attached to their twigs. It seems impossible that beech trees were once the primary species in our hardwood forests, ours are so damaged and full of parasites.  It must have been spectacular to see a beech forest in winter, full of golden brown leaves dancing and visiting together.

When we returned from Halifax last week we crossed the Cobequid Pass, something like crossing the Great Divide with different seasons on either side. Dry on the Halifax side, snowing on the PEI side. Whatever the weather, it’s a glorious view. What a world we live in. Always something to look forward to: picnics, crocuses, lobster season, smelts, more eagles flying over my head… summer visitors have started writing ahead to warn us of their intentions.

Meanwhile, piles of dirty snow like dead sheep lie in mounds along the roadside. Cars park on the side of the road because driveways are quagmires.  The culvert is blocked with ice and the water sits harmlessly enough in a pond beside the road. No doubt we’ll get rain and then see what happens. The geese have settled on the field behind us and do not seem to be blaming their leader, as far as I can tell. The ice at the shore is breaking up.  Spring is here.

Without Prejudice

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Illustration by JoDee SamuelsonIt is a clear calm evening with a full moon, and the first Monday of the month. Some of us decide to walk to the Women’s Institute meeting at Alice’s house, two kilometres down the road. Alice has a large living room that can accommodate all of us, since our usual meeting place—the one-roomed school—is closed for the winter.

We are the first to arrive. Boots off, jackets piled on the bed in the spare bedroom, we gradually claim chairs or couches as others arrive. At 7:30 president Marylou bangs her gavel and the meeting begins.

Welcome everybody. I’m glad so many of you made it out. It’s a beautiful night tonight, isn’t it. Let’s begin our meeting with the reading of the Mary Stewart Collect:

Keep us O Lord from pettiness; let us grow large in thought in word and deed.
Let us be done with fault finding and leave off self seeking.
May we put away all pretence and meet each other face to face,
without self pity and without
prejudice…

Now we’ll turn it over to the secretary for the roll call. Vicky—present; Sue—present; Teresa—here… The minutes of the last meeting… The treasurer’s report… Old business (sleigh ride, new babies in community, letters of request or thanks)… New business (fund raiser for hospital/women’s shelter/school lunch program)…

It all takes time. Most women have opinions about everything and conversations head off into new and fascinating directions; until the gavel must be banged again to marshal the forces. Then it’s time for our guest speaker, who could be anybody from a member of the legislature, to a driver from Waste Watch. Usually one of our own members is the convenor, and we learn about the interests of people in our own community: beekeeping; working in a nursing home; traveling to Germany; cracker-making; crocheting; creating costumes for theatre; scrapbooking; dairy farming; or raising broiler chickens for Swiss Chalet.

Let’s give a big thank you to Louise for her interesting presentation on how to de-bone a chicken. (Round of applause.) We’ll all know how to do it next time, right? Well, maybe I’ll try it sometime when I don’t have company! I don’t think my knives are that sharp. Thanks Louise!  Now it’s time for lunch, so let’s say grace together:

We thank thee Father for thy care
Food, friends and kindliness we share
May we forever mindful be
Of Home and Country and of Thee.

There are some people who don’t believe in grace, or Thee, or Father. But no one can argue with sharing kindliness, or “putting aside all pretense and meeting each other face to face, without self pity and without prejudice.” I was one of those who was hesitant about joining the Women’s Institute, but I haven’t regretted it for a minute. Whole new worlds have been opened to me, within walking distance and often by moonlight.   

—Names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.

Charles and Myrtle

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Myrtle by Jodee SamuelsonOn this frozen winter morning with the north wind urging me to stay indoors, I decide to step out and visit some elder residents of the Cove, Charles and Myrtle MacNevin.

Charles MacNevin was born here, in the house where he has lived out his 84 years. I meet him coming out the door on his way to fetch firewood. “That’s okay, I can do it later,” he insists as he ushers me into the back porch. Myrtle is in the kitchen at the McClary kitchen range, deftly poking in foot-long chunks of split hardwood. “This stove is as old as I am,” she says. “I couldn’t do without it.” The oven door is open, a kettle hisses quietly, various clocks tick gently in the background. I step into the past.

So, I ask, what was winter like in days gone by?

Myrtle: “Snow, deep snow!”

Charles: “The roads weren’t open, everyone traveled on the fields and rivers. You had to be careful on the ice because of all the springs. Mostly you knew where they were, and of course the ice was bushed [marked with small trees frozen into the ice], but even so the ice could get thin. Maybe we went to town once a week, over the fields and down the river. We’d haul in a load of potatoes, or hay for the livery stables—there were quite a few in town those days. While you did your errands you’d leave your horse at the stable and they’d feed it a bite of hay, so those places always needed hay.”

Myrtle: “Charles could get a hot dinner at the livery stable, in the house. The wife cooked the meals and the husband looked after the horses.”

What about your daily routines?

Charles: “In the morning the water in the kettle might be frozen. First thing was to get the stove going, then feed the animals. Breakfast was after that. Oatmeal porridge, bread and molasses, tea and milk. We only milked one cow in winter, the others were dried up till they calved in spring.”

Myrtle: “We always had plenty of milk. And meat and potatoes, carrots and pickles and everything. See these carrots? I’m making copper pennies with them. They’re still good, but in the spring when carrots started to sprout, most people used to throw them out. Charles’s mother lived with us until she died at 98, and she showed me how to make copper pennies with old carrots. You slice them in rounds, boil them and put them in vinegar and spices. They’re some good! My own mother died when I was eight so I didn’t learn much cooking. Charles’s mother taught me everything.”

Charles: “And of course there was threshing that went on all winter, barley and oats. Everyone helped each other, one farm one week, another the next. No one kept track.”

Our conversation rolls on and on. The clocks ticks, time passes, but we do not keep track.

Another New Year

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

New Year by JoDee SamuelsonThe landscape is brown and gold with a few welcome crimson highlights of rosehips, Nova Scotia hollyberries and wild apples. Chrismas lights disappear too quickly, leaving the night landscape bleak and introspective. How long ago summer seems.

A sharp-shinned hawk sits on the phone line contemplating breakfast possibilities. Canada geese, reluctant to leave, congregate in a field of stubble. Black ducks circle lazily in the open water of an almost frozen pond, while crows fly noisily from treetop to shore, sending messages or sharing news—who knows? A cat darts across the road and disappears into the ditch. It’s another New Year for all of us, though humans take this change of calendar more seriously than our feathered and furry friends.

People of the Cove are still recovering from December, our busiest month of the year. It began with the Women’s Institute Christmas potluck supper which included a collection of “White Cross gifts” (personal items such as socks and pajamas) for the Canadian Mental Health Association. The next week a Christmas House Tour raised money for the equipment funds of the QEH and Prince County Hospitals. To the homeowners who opened your beautiful houses, to those who bought tickets, and to the women who kept the cider hot and cookie trays filled at the old school: thank you.

The grandest event of all was the Living Nativity. Words cannot do it justice, but it is clear that community spirit is alive and well in the Cove. If you were in one of the hundreds of cars that drove past the manger of Bethlehem and saw the goats sleeping in the young shepherd’s lap, or Tessie the horse nibbling at a choir member’s song sheet, or the baby donkey kicking up its heels, or the alpacas smiling enigmatically at the amazing sight, or white-robed angels perched on bales quietly blessing the holy birth, or the red-gowned choir singing Joy to the World!—well, then, you know what happened: the Christmas Story came alive in that brief shining drive-through moment.  None of us will ever forget it.

Open houses, concerts, craft sales, staff parties, shopping for presents and carol singing now seem like distant memories. We take a deep breath and look about us. What was it all about? Are we better people for all the energy (and money) we spent last month? Was it worth it? Of course it was! We got through the darkest month of the year with spirit and class! In small communities such as ours, thousands of dollars were raised willingly and cheerfully for important causes, not out of charity but out of friendship. We shared music and laughter, stories and food, we dressed up, lit candles, played games, made gingerbread houses, made excuses to phone one another and meet for coffee. It as all worthwhile and always will be, as long as we have winter with its cold dark nights and as long as there is Christmas.

A Living Nativity

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Alpaca by JoDee SamuelsonWhat are these curious alpacas doing in the Cove? They’re standing in for camels in our first ever Living Nativity in the Cove.

A Living Nativity is a leap of imagination, a star above a lowly stable, the warm smell of farm animals, it is sheep and cows and yes, alpacas peering over the gate. It is a baby in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men, and angel choirs singing Glory in the Highest.  As you drive slowly through the farmyard you reflect upon the simplicity and power of the Christmas story, and you leave with a smile on your face.

The sheep, horse, cattle and donkeys involved in the Living Nativity are looking forward to playing their roles. For weeks they have been conscientiously practicing their mooing, baaing and braying, and the consensus is: they are ready to go.

This might be enough seasonal community action in the Cove, but no: we are holding a Christmas Concert and a Women’s Institute Christmas House Tour. Obviously the Cove is the place to be this month.

Good-hearted generous December, month of tradition, month of candlelight suppers. Singing songs we all know by heart. Listening to classical music. Red and green decorations, fir trees, the smell of popcorn. Cat sleeping on the couch. December, month of darkness. Christmas lights going up—how welcome they are! The month of cuddling up to that warm place in the house: a heater, a fireplace, a bed. Woolen sweaters that seem so impossibly thick in May now become absolutely perfect.

As we get older we want things to continue exactly as they have in the past. We want the same Christmas goose with the same sausage stuffing, the same cookies, the same fruitcake, the same Christmas pudding even though it’s always too much on a full stomach. We might even want the same presents: doesn’t everyone need new underwear and socks? Father doesn’t get a tie anymore, or Mother perfume. Fortunately for young children there are dollar stores. In my childhood there were Five to a Dollar Stores. The first gift I ever bought for my father, from a Five to a Dollar Store, was a black pocket comb. At the same time my brother bought Dad a ping pong ball—even though we didn’t have a ping pong table. That ping pong ball lived in Dad’s top drawer forever, and was still there when we cleaned out the house years later.

Which is to say, don’t sweat the gift giving. It truly is the thought that counts.

Alpacas don’t exchange presents. They don’t normally “do” Christmas. To an alpaca, one day is pretty much the same as the next, but they do like standing in for the camels of the Three Wise Men in the starring role of their lives.

Seasons Greetings from Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, sheep, horse, and the rest of the cast of the Living Nativity in the Cove.

California Berries

Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Strawberries by JoDee SamuelsonWith our gardens put to bed for the winter, we turn to grocery store shelves for fresh fruit and vegetables. Where do those beautifully packaged strawberries come from?

California.

Your trusty correspondent had the good fortune to be in California recently, in Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz. This city is a tiny dot on the map, yet (unlike the dots on a PEI map) it is home to 50,000 residents. Every day before dawn, a stream of vehicles creeps through the town, bearing farm workers on their way to the strawberry fields of Watsonville. By the time the sun comes up, pickers are already filling baskets with fruit that will, within the week, be on PEI kitchen tables. 

The strawberry fields are flat, twice the size of the Charlottetown racetrack or larger. Berries are grown in hilled double rows through holes punched in plastic, with an irrigation hose running along each row. Are they as good as Island strawberries? No! Even berries from an organic U-Pick were hard and tough-stemmed, perfect for shipping across the country but not for snackin’ on while you pick, as we do here.

Every two years, the fields (of non-organic farms) are plowed down, fumigated and covered with an immense sheet of plastic. When every living thing is good and dead, the plastic gets bundled up and shipped to Asia to be recycled, and the berry planting-and-growing routine resumes. All that plastic seems a little grim—not to mention the chemicals used to fumigate—but those farmers give us what we want: beautiful fruit year-round.

Watsonville enjoys a pleasant coastal climate, good for apple orchards, acres of greenhouses bursting with raspberries and blackberries, and lettuce in impeccable rows stretching to the horizon. Over the hills to the east is the San Joaquim Valley (the flattest land surface on earth) with mile after mile of pistachio trees, walnuts, almonds and pecans; raisin grapes: red potatoes; roma tomatoes; peppers; garlic; corn corn corn; cotton; peaches, plums. The heat is intense. Holstein cows stand listlessly under what shade they can find, munching on corn silage and dreaming of moving to PEI. In the dairy farmer’s yard a palm tree reaches to the heavens, with a fig or orange tree complementing the landscape.

California is truly a different world. With the right combination of irrigation, huge machinery and cheap labour they can grow everything. It’s impossible to tell who the illegal immigrants are, but it’s a sure thing that they’re happy to have jobs.

Back on the Island we find things comfortingly the same as when we left. Out for a nighttime walk, we admire the moonlight reflecting off the treetops, and off the plastic-wrapped rows of silage in the farmer’s field, reminding us that, like California, we have our own plastic waste issues. We’re connected in many ways, not the least of which is our fondness for the humble strawberry.

Feeding Friends

The Cove Journal
by JoDee Samuelson

Garlic by JoDee SamuelsonThe autumnal equinox has come and gone and we head into calm reflective October. There is plenty to keep us occupied, but the frantic busy-ness of summer is already a distant memory. Potato farmers, of course, are anything but calm and reflective as they work night and day to get in the year’s crop.

Hurricane Irene blew away the mugginess of late summer, bringing bright skies and clear air—and tomato blight. Few gardeners in the Cove have tomatoes this year. Everything that could be done was done, short of bringing all the tomato plants in-doors. Europeans didn’t eat tomatoes until the time of Cortez, so life will no doubt continue. We do miss BLT sandwiches, one of the many tasty highlights of the season.

There seemed to be an abundance of cabbage butterflies this summer. Oh for pest-free crops! Organic farmers have their work cut out for them. Something that was successful and needed very little tending was garlic. Our excellent harvest of fat juicy bulbs is drying in the shed, ready for future use or for planting. Garlic should be planted three weeks before the first frost. Vesey’s website lists October 9 as PEI’s first frost date, so it’s time to start getting those garlic beds ready. Don’t forget to snuggle your garlic under as much mulch as you can muster.  A foot of mixed grass clippings, seaweed, twigs and leaves isn’t too much. This will settle, and in spring you can rake it between the rows to keep the weeds down.

It seems appropriate to take a moment to remember two stalwart sons of the Cove who passed away recently, taking their own chapters of history with them. One was a sturdy elderly farmer, Scottish Presbyterian to the core, of sound mind and excellent conversation, who appreciated the occasional sip of sherry. He did not claim to have done great deeds, yet his knowledge of livestock, potatoes, hay and grain, weather and world events was impressive. We miss dropping in to share news with him, and we miss his smile.

The second gentleman was a friendly soul who rented a wood splitter every fall. Once he was done with it, he’d haul it over to any neighbor who needed wood-splitting assistance. In the spring he would get a truck to fetch mushroom compost from Freetown, and some of us would get a share of the load for our gardens. Friends like this are not easily replaced, nor do we want to replace them—we want to keep them.

Wood splitters are not needed the way they used to be. Firewood comes trimmed to length and split perfectly. But we do need friends. As the weather turns cooler and we move indoors, let us dig the big roasting chicken out of the freezer, throw some potatoes, carrots, beets and a few garlic cloves in the roasting pan, put candles on the table, and invite each other over for supper. Bon appetit!

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