Thursday, August 17, 2017

Blueberry Meditations

I dispute the poorly examined assertion that none of us ever changes. It is a claim I find easy to prove incorrect. When I was a kid bell peppers made me gag, soup was a snore, no Christmas gift was worse than a pair a great-aunt`s hand-made socks and berry-picking was perhaps the most boring conceivable human activity. None of these biases dwells in me now. Bell peppers are an excellent component in any salad. I could live on soup alone. Hand-made socks at Christmas are a joy. Above all, berry-picking is nowadays a rhapsody.

The blueberries on the slopes below Bob Nagel`s old place on MacKenzie Hill are at their peak. These days Jan and I are apt to include a few containers in the little pack we take on our morning rambles to Dalem Lake. On the way to Dalem or on the way back we stop to reap some of the blueberry bounty. The reward for doing so goes well beyond the full containers we take away with an hour`s effort. As a 14-year-old I neither knew nor cared that berry-picking can be wonderfully meditative. I pick attentively, careful to eliminate those that are too stunted, too green or too mushed. I take pains to disqualify interlopers – bugs, caterpillars, juvenile snails – from what goes into the containers. 

But the berries get only a share of my attention, not the whole of it. I keep an eye and an ear open to what is going on around me: the sound of the wind in Bob`s pines, crickets locked in conversation in the bush just beside me, a song sparrow delivering his morning vespers. Somehow berry-picking on a sunny morning lulls me into a notion that the world is alright after all; without deliberate effort I manage to forget for a while about Donald Trump, climate change and the parlous state of affairs with North Korea. I am almost sorry when the containers are full and it is time for us to be on our way.

In case you care to know, blueberries are members of the Vaccinium genus: from the cabin library`s copy of Roland`s two-volume Flora of Nova Scotia we learn that ten different Vaccinium species grow in Nova Scotia. Blueberries, cranberries and whortleberries – they are all Vaccinium. Included in the clan are highbush blueberry, lowbush blueberry, dwarf blueberry, Alaska blueberry. Nova Scotians are blessed with blueberries.

I wonder whether Bob`s hill features two or more species: some of the ones we gather are as blue as we expect blueberries to be, others are nearly black. It is more likely they are different varieties of lowbush cranberry, `the dominant blueberry of our fields and barrens`. Regardless, the ones we glean from MacKenzie Hill are all delicious. Occasionally we see lists of the most nutritious foods; blueberries are typically included in the top ten. In contrast to chips and cheesies, we can eat as many as we like – guilt-free.

After the morning constitutional to Dalem we breakfast royally back at the cabin. These days the standard combination of cheerios and chia seeds is enhanced by Ontario peaches and blueberries from Bob`s hill. Or, combined with yoghurt, they may sustain us at lunch. And there is more. As I write this, Jan is in the midst of another blueberry-focused operation: she is making her second batch of blueberry jam. The Bernardin jars are at the ready.

At night – not my favourite time of day – I am frequently deprived of sleep, beset with what I call `busy brain`. I think too much, about too many subjects. I cope with insomnia by reading with the aid of my trusty booklight – or by thinking about blueberry-picking on Bob`s hill. Sometimes that does the trick: I manage through night-time blueberry meditation to get back to sleep.

Soon the blueberries of Bob`s hill will be done for the season. There is consolation on the horizon. This year`s blackberry crop looks to be just as bountiful as the blueberry legions and judged by early returns, just about as delicious. It seems certain we`re going to have to make a trip to town for another case of Bernardin jars.



Monday, August 14, 2017

A Thing of Beauty and a Joy for a Good Long Time

As I creep into ever deeper senescence I ordinarily find myself drawn more to disposal than acquisition of material belongings but an exception has arisen gloriously this past while at the old cabin at Big Bras d’Or. Jan says I am like a kid at Christmas but that description hardly does justice to the euphoric state in which I behold the edifice I began building nearly a half century ago. Long an admirer of other people’s metal roofs, I decided that I wanted to have one installed on the little cabin that is our home for up to a third of a typical year.

Not necessarily opposed to this notion, Jan was not entirely on board either. Four weeks ago I delivered her to Sydney’s McCurdy airport for the trip back to Victoria and her musical week at UVic. No sooner was her back turned that I visited Benny Niesten of Timberlake Construction, a local specialist in metal roof installation, to inquire what a shiny new steel roof might cost me. Benny came down to ‘Bigador’ with tape measure in hand, made his calculations. When he told me what the bill would be I said ‘When can we start?’

I had to wait a couple of weeks for materiel to be assembled and for an opening in Benny’s schedule and by the time everything was ready to roll, Jan had returned from the west coast and was on hand to witness what unfolded. A couple of young bucks, Johnny and Greg, arrived shortly after 7 on Thursday morning with a trailer loaded with wooden strapping and steel sheets. They got right to work. The old asbestos shingle roof stayed where it was, the strapping installed directly on top of it.

What with the two additions I have made to the original cabin over the years – the sleeping porch and sun room – there were five roof pitches for Johnny and Greg to deal with, two skylights, a steel chimney and its supports. Benny had said it was likely a two-day job, the lads felt it might be closer to four. Benny turned out to know exactly what he was talking about. For someone of my tastes in spectator sport the job proved to be hugely entertaining. I watched, tried to stay out of the way. By Friday afternoon the job was done. I floated well above Cloud Nine. I still do.

The first person to lay eyes on the new roof other than ourselves was Bob Nagel’s nephew Dennis. He put the matter succinctly: ‘they under-promised and over-delivered’. I couldn’t say it better. I now declare, with only a little exaggeration, that I have a ‘million-dollar roof on a ten-cent building’.

Given the roof’s immediate surrounds – mountain-ashes and maples, tamaracks and pines, spruces and firs – I decided on a green roof, green in its myriad hues being the colour of choice in the close vicinity.

Apart from the obvious advantage of being a thing of beauty and a joy for a good long time the new roof offers other rewards: even if I live to 105 I need never fret about having to replace it ever again. It is cleaner than a shingle roof which means that the water we gather in the rain barrels is crystal clear. I admit to one very small disappointment: I had been told by many that we would learn that a heavy rain on a metal roof would deliver considerably more noise. This may have been a deterrent for some folks but not for me: I looked forward to a big jump in the decibel count. Yesterday we had a big rain. Was there a difference in noise level? Not much.

Oh well, the slight disappointment that conversation won’t be overwhelmed by mighty rains at Bigador weighs little against the delight of having the prettiest, tightest roof of any shack in all of Boularderie Island.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Outhouse Adventure of a Different Kind

Important though it doubtless is for those who get to enjoy the myriad delights of Bigador for more than a day or two, the little building at the end of the short northbound trail from the cabin attracts very little fanfare. The floor, only 4’10” square, is too small to accommodate a party or dance or indeed a gathering of any size at all but that is no problem since it never need host an assemblage of more than one person at a time. Call it what you will – privy, backhouse, outhouse, poop palace – the little building is the one to which we travel whenever nature demands.  It has stood loyal almost as long as the cabin itself – close to 46 years and counting – and though we don’t say it often enough, yes, the little building is much appreciated.

The little building – let’s call it LB hereinafter – has undergone alterations over the years – a new roof a few years back, a ‘picture window’ installed more recently when pal Garth demanded a view, a bright yellow-painted floor more recently still – but its principal purpose remains entirely unaltered from the very first days. Before the picture window was installed the only way to admit a little sunshine into the LB and to enjoy any view at all was to leave the door open.  Once in a while a curious bird – a junco perhaps, a rubythroat or maybe a yellow-rumped warbler – stopped by to see what was afoot, but that was rare; most of the flying creatures who came inside while LB was occupied were mosquitoes, and their visits were always purposeful, never idle. I ought to have installed the picture window years ago: with the door closed mosquitoes are hardly a problem at all.

One needn’t be bored during a visit to the LB. The building holds reading material: a year-old issue of Vanity Fair magazine, a back issue of National Geographic, a fairly new picture book featuring images of fabulous toilets from all over the world. There is even an attendant of sorts – an old cardboard Mountie, only four feet tall, urging visitors to ‘Have a good one!

Given what goes on in the LB it should come as no surprise that a certain kind of regular maintenance is obligatory: to put no fine point on it, LB needs to be shoveled out from time to time. It is typically an olfactory signal that lets one know the time is nigh. Strangely, despite the birding and wildlife-viewing distractions reliably availed during a shoveling operation, no one seems drawn to the task. Truth be told, I am customarily the only person who carries out this important role.

Yesterday, in anticipation of Jan’s return from her week-long adventure at the University of Victoria guitar academy, I thought it suitable that my better half should be greeted by a freshly shoveled-out LB.

Without going into excessive detail about the task before me I need point out that a first step is to excavate a reception area for LB’s periodic proceeds. It was during that preliminary excavation that something extraordinary happened. Something hardly slower than a speeding bullet shot between my feet. It happened so fast I had no idea what I’d glimpsed or even whether I’d actually seen anything at all. I extracted another shovelful and at that there was instantly an eruption of small creatures. Beautiful creatures. I didn’t know it immediately but afterward I learned I’d unearthed a den of the extraordinary woodland jumping mouse – Napaeozapus insignis, if you care to know its scientific handle..

Much smaller than the familiar deer mouse we often see outdoors – and occasionally indoors too – the body of a woodland jumping mouse might be only half the size of its relative. Its coloration, a warm olive brown back flanked by golden orange sides, makes it, in the words of Banfield’s The Mammals of Canada “one of the most attractive of the small denizens of our eastern woods.” This was a ‘lifer’ sighting for me: I had never before laid eyes on a jumping mouse, let alone the five or six that scattered at the prospect of what my shovel might do next.

In addition to its extraordinary athletic ability, my new friends displayed a remarkably long tail – easily twice the length of the mouse’s body. I learned this from Banfield: though not at all rare the woodland jumping mouse is mostly nocturnal – the reason I’d never seen it. It has a diverse diet: from various subterranean fungi, an array of seeds and fruit, butterfly larvae, grasshoppers, dragonflies and beetles.

Somehow I managed to capture one of the little fellows so that I might take its portrait before setting it free. Two are exhibited here for my reader’s gratification.

Who knows how many fellow creatures – never heard or seen without a shovel in hand – share the property around us not through land registry title but by decree issued under the authority of Mother Nature. I do not expect that reacquaintance with jumping mice will be an assured reward of my next LB duty but I feel well enough rewarded by yesterday’s events that I will have no reluctance to look after the chore again.