Thursday, August 18, 2016

But Doesn’t the Outhouse Need Shoveling?

At a time when it sometimes seems that significant kith and kin are falling like autumn leaves I am driven to shift the focus to subjects likely to induce a smile or outright laugh. Our Cape Breton summer proceeds swimmingly. Both figuratively and literally. 

The waters of the Great Bras d’Or are typically frozen solid in the cold dark heart of winter; how can it be that by early August the same waters are a blithe, bonny place to go for a swim? On sunny summer afternoons we install our ‘In the swimmin’ hole’ sign by the cabin door and head down to the shore.

There is always plenty to contemplate down there: the clean lines of a passing sloop, the views of Kelly’s Mountain and our splendid salty strait, the feathered neighbours – kingfishers, spotted sandpipers, gulls, bald eagles – demanding to know what business we have in their back yard, the 300-million-year-old Carboniferous fossils strewn along our very own beach. Visitors rhapsodize: how lucky we are to have such a paradise to call our own. I am disinclined to debate the claim.

Guests might imagine that Bigadore actually is a paradise but is any utopia truly, utterly perfect? Doesn’t the occasional fly alight in the butter dish? Isn’t it a nuisance when a squirrel chews through a kitchen screen to break into the cabin? Doesn’t a nocturnal raccoon knock over the garbage can from time to time? Isn’t the outhouse in need of shoveling out once or twice a summer?

Alice brought Randy for his first taste of this particular paradise. We stayed up late savouring meaty conversation. In the morning Randy brought out his shiny new drone, took marvelous aerial photographs of the cabin and its surrounds. I was as impressed as a 10-year-old. Michael – the man who at age two-and-a-half gave the old place its enduring name – ‘Bigadore’ – arrived with another newcomer, his squeeze Elaine, for a weekend, together with the children. We looked for salamanders under logs, pointed out some of the more fascinating flowers of summer, kept a list of birds seen and heard.

Adele, Jan’s lovely young niece, came for a week and incited only one aggravation: frustrating my quest to identify a single vice in her. Surely even the most virtuous folks have a wart or two, don’t they? 

The national historic site at Louisbourg is a major tourist draw, one that loses much of its lustre after the twentieth visit. But it was a lifer for Adele so we went again, and managed to find novelty outside the fortress walls – a guided tour of the battlefield where New England invaders successfully besieged the Louisbourg defenders in 1758. At Baddeck we introduced Adele to twin delights: fresh east coast lobster and a street festival featuring the finest, liveliest Cape Breton music.

Opportunities of the sporting-life variety are generously availed at Bigadore. Jan and I play cribbage at breakfast, and never take it easy on one other. We try to keep ourselves fit for cutthroat bananagrams with the monozygotes. For those not in the know that is the version of the game in which four players seek to lay down their thirty-six letter tiles at lightning speed. Two-letter words are verboten, at least one eleven-letter word is required. In this league a game hardly ever takes longer than two minutes. The twin cousins, Lynn and Louise, are pitiless, Lynn a particularly brutal assassin, sometimes delivering the coup-de-grace in less than 60 seconds. More often than not she outscores the rest of us combined. The humiliation guarantees I cannot get too big for my britches.

The woods through which we walk on our early morning constitutional to Dalem Lake thronged with birdsong in June and early July. Now they have fallen largely silent. At 6:30 in the morning it is easy to imagine that we have the whole world to ourselves. From the porch we begin to notice small gangs of silent warblers mobilizing for the expedition to their winter domicile. Terns holler from the strait as they too begin their southward journey. How long will it be before we spot the first scarlet leaves of autumn?

Today the next eagerly-awaited visitors – Naomi and the girls – take their turn in our little paradise. We’ll roast corn and marshmallows in the coals of a bonfire, pick blueberries on Bob’s hill, aggravate the kingfishers down at the shore, behold Andromeda and the Milky Way in the clear night sky, ponder how it came to pass we could be so lucky.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ron Satterfield, 1921-2016

How often I asserted he was the man for whom the expression ‘salt of the earth’ was coined. He was that rarest of humans: a friend who never, ever disappointed. And now he is gone. Ron Satterfield departed this mortal coil, well into his 96th year, August 12. His wonderful old heart had skated on thin ice these past few years, yet his demise – imminent and inevitable though it may have been – packs a great wallop.

Our friendship germinated in birding and birds but as the years and decades went by it flourished in diverse soil: nature, history, human folly, the successes and failures of the Blue Jays, a shared antipathy to Stephen Harper.

Ron was a terrific birder and naturalist, someone who knew the wild world and, more important, cared deeply for its welfare. 

He was 60 when our friendship took root. He was an expert birder, I was a Johnny-come-lately who felt he’d wasted his first three decades by not being a birder. He indulged my ardor to tap all I could from his deep well of bird lore. 

Soon enough I was infected by the peculiar madness of the birding Big Day – an all-out effort to list as many species as could be found in a single 24-hour period. For years in the early-mid 1980s, often in the company of Bruce Whittington, Ron and I would head out shortly after midnight on an early May morning to listen for owls then welcome the sunrise at Munn’s Road, counting the singers – warblers, thrushes, sparrows, et al – voicing their joy at the dawn of a new day. 

We got better at it. At first we thought a century – a hundred species – represented a pretty good effort. Not for long: soon the three friends pushed the count to 110, 120. Eventually we counted it a bust if we failed to reach 130 or 135 before the big day was done. I was a hard taskmaster. No breaks were allowed. Lunch was permitted but only on the fly and only after we’d hit a hundred species. Ron was a quarter-century older but he never wilted, never grumbled, never quit. Indeed, years later, after we’d come to our senses and given up the Big Day game, Ron reveled in the memories, made it clear that those times were some of the best of his life.

Though not invested with degree-granting authority I bestowed an honorary doctorate on Ron, often introducing him as ‘Dr. Satterfield’, convinced the award was entirely apt.

He was an identical twin, his brother Harold – ‘Har’ to Ron – the best friend of his life. Each was pretty much a wild child: they spent every available hour outdoors. They were sometimes truant, the classroom never able to match the lure of the fields and waters of Victoria’s Foul Bay and Ross Bay neighbourhoods. 

When the Second World War broke out Har and Ron joined up early. Initially an army man, Ron soon took to the air as a recruit in the CATP, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Flying Ansons and Cornells he survived a crash; more than a few of his comrades did not.

I loved hearing Ron’s wartime stories. Some of the memories he was least proud of happened to be the very ones I found most endearing. He did not always fit the officers’ template of an ideal airman: he occasionally ‘went over the fence’ for an unauthorized leave in whichever town or city happened to be closest to his base. He was not always the best turned out or most fastidiously shaved of his comrades but at graduation time he finished near the top of his class. Flight-Sergeant Satterfield regretted that he was never shipped across the Atlantic to do his bit for King and Country in the dangerous skies of Europe. He remained in Canada, flew young airmen on training runs, supported the efforts of the CATP. 

When the war was over he returned to Ross Bay, went to work as a carpenter, married a young woman, Joy, he had known her whole life, raised a family of four, found the time to become a master birder.

He never stopped walking. Though his range diminished as he negotiated the years of his tenth decade Ron left his Fairfield home almost every morning, pushed his walker along the margins of Ross Bay, always with binocular in hand. He never stopped taking an inventory of the regular birds he found on the bay and always kept an eye peeled for rarities. He made countless friends, all of whom stopped to exchange pleasantries whenever they were lucky enough to cross his path.

It is trite to say of the passing of a fellow mortal that the world is a poorer place for his parting. In the case of Ron Satterfield the words are no mere reflex. Ron was one of the finest people I ever knew and one of the truest, most loyal of friends. There was no one like him. I will miss him hugely.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Mama Mia! Stirs the Seismographs

The bicycles back in the truck box, we went to Amherst Shore to take advantage of the kind nature, generous hospitality and boon companionship offered by good friends Carole and Garth. For some long time I have been keen to show them off to my dear old Mum – and her to them – so we went off to Truro to realize the dream. No one was disappointed. Each charmed the other. I was lauded for my taste in friends – and my good fortune at having landed Doris as my mother.

We moved on to Black Rock to greet the elder Nelsons and fly kites with Teo and Luca, aged 7 and 4 respectively. Gifted with some considerable talent as an amateur prestidigitator – magician if you prefer – Garth put on a show for the boys. Using only rubber bands, paper clips and a five-dollar bill he delivered effects just about as jaw-dropping as delivering a rabbit out of a hat. Garth was not the first nor will he be the last to fall victim to the charisma of young Luca. He offered to take Luca home – a supplement to the nine grandchildren he already has. Not surprisingly, the offer was declined.

The waters of the Northumberland Strait are the warmest north of the Carolinas but our agenda was too crowded to accommodate languorous time on the beach. We took the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, savoured a walkabout and ice cream at Victoria-by-the-Sea, stopped at old church cemeteries to see what historical prizes we might find.

Some of the country’s finest soldiers-in-bronze grace the war memorials of PEI. I was enthusiastically listing the virtues of George W. Hill’s three stalwart infantrymen on the Charlottetown cenotaph when a lovely little lady asked if she might eavesdrop. I said sure. It turned out that she is a native south Italian – ‘That’s why I’m short’ – who was intrigued to learn that I’m about to have a book published on the subject of war memorials. She wanted the details, intending to buy copies for her sons. Which suited the author perfectly well.

That evening we were just four of the great throng of theatre-goers having the time of their lives reveling in Mama Mia! at Confederation Centre. Everyone else seemed to know what I didn’t: that the show uses the songs of Abba to tell a happy story about love and connection, loss and reconciliation. By the end of the show, all of the people in the house were on their feet, singing their lungs out, grooving in the aisles. The building rocked, the seismographs at far-off Bedford in Nova Scotia recording the tremors. 

The next day it was off to the Island’s second city, initially to dine on a huge dollop of fish-and-chips at Sharkey’s on the Summerside waterfront, then to admire another bronze, the brilliant Emanuel Hahn evocation of an infantryman going into action that the lucky folks of Summerside get to admire any time they want.

En route to Malpeque on the Island’s north shore someone spotted a roadside sign pointing the way to a purveyor of iron products, at Annan. The items on display, a fanciful montage of weird birds and animals, are all transmogrified from cast-off bits of metal – old shovels, spent tools, bicycle frames, rebar, nuts, washers, you-name-it. Garth walked away with a bright red lobster, Jan with a multi-coloured creature inspired by a cartoon character, whether Heckle or Jekyll I cannot say.

At Malpeque there was another bronze soldier to admire, this one by Hamilton MacCarthy, and more seafood to savour at the Oyster Barn, next door to the lobster fleet tied up at the Malpeque wharf. As if all this were not reward enough there was one more gift to relish. 

At Indian River there is a marvelous old wooden church, St. Mary’s, that is now the venue for the Indian River Festival.
The evening’s attraction at St. Mary’s was The Door You Came In, a musical story delivered by David Macfarlane and Douglas Cameron based on The Danger Tree, Macfarlane’s brilliant memoir of family and war. The Door You Came In is excellent: evocative, moving, resonant. 

For years, whenever urged to write a book of my own, I have been wont to duck, saying the book I would want to write has already been written: The Danger Tree. Eventually I changed my mind and wrote a book about – what else? – war memorials. It is to be published by Heritage House in November, just before Remembrance Day. Now, someone has written a foreword for the book, a well-considered and generous one. That someone is David Macfarlane. 

It has been a good week.