Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A Walk in Bob’s Woods

Mid-October seemed a good time for a solo walk in untraveled woods. Some years ago – eight, ten, who can say? – Jan and Bob Nagel and I invested a little effort in clearing out an old road on the eastern border of Robert’s two hundred acres. Alone this time, without the navigational talent of my better-half, I have no easy time in relocating the trailhead. I choose an acceptable-looking entry point and commence to bushwhack. Our combined effort from that time is now utterly indiscernible: I need not have it pointed out that nature harbours neither regard nor sympathy for human works.

I make my through the forest tangle thinking of my old friend. The rest of us imagined Robert had a portrait concealed in the attic: he was supposed to outlive us all. Circumstance made other arrangements: this is the second year that Herr Nagel has been absent from his woods.

In spring this forest is alive with bird song. Now in autumn warblers and thrushes are long departed to warmer climes but there is occasional evidence I do not have the forest entirely to myself. Nuthatches, chickadees, jays and kinglets initiate sporadic conversation.  A red squirrel objects loudly to my passage. A pileated woodpecker grumbles too but declines to indulge my wish for a photo op. The remains of a ruffed grouse are more accommodating: a mess of feathers disaggregated from the bones and flesh that constituted a living, breathing whole perhaps as recently as yesterday. ‘What a sin’, Lynn and Louise might observe, but goshawks need to eat too.

Robert Frost’s Mending Wall comes to mind. Along Bob’s eastern line there is an old moss-covered wall, looking intact in some sections, that divides whoever owned the land a century and a half ago from his neighbour’s holding on the opposite side. When Canada was young, I imagine, there were not woods here, but fields. I have no direct evidence for the supposition, only the notion that the heart of a forest is a strange place for a finely-made stone wall. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the poet observes. Here on Bob’s line it is easy to see what that something could be.

Who built the wall? And when? Was it a MacKenzie or a MacLeod? Was it both? On opposite sides of the old wall were MacKenzie and MacLeod good neighbours? I like to think they may have been and fancy them building the wall together to keep their cows on the right side of the line.

Boularderie Island was farming country ten, fifteen decades ago. In mind’s eye I see the neighbour-farmers maintaining the wall, tending their fields, raising their families, living off the land. Whatever the fruits of their labour back when, there is little sign of the fruits now. When in older age did the neighbours go to their reward? How long did it take the spruce and fir to begin reclaiming their due? Are MacKenzie-MacLeod descendants anywhere in the neighbourhood? Nowadays it is clear these woods attract little human traffic. Hmm, I think, I don`t have my cell phone: if I should keel over how many years will it be before another bushwhacker stumbles upon my bones?

The woods are shot through with colour: the scarlet and gold of maple and birch, the myriad greens of the mosses underfoot. It has been a banner year for mushrooms: Would that I could identify them all but my mycology is weak. I can see that some are puffballs, some are shelf mushrooms but whether Bovista and Stereum I cannot say.

Looking and listening, I lose track of time as I slowly follow the old wall.  I stay close to the line, reach a familiar bog and choose footfalls that look drier than others. Then the reverie is over, I am at the back road to Dalem Lake, where there are houses and the clamor of the big trucks on Highway 105 grows louder.

Allah willing, I will make a point of revisiting Bob’s woods before another ten years unspool.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is This How It Is for Hillary and Stephen?

The  Great Autumn Book Tour is now but a memory. In the interests of drawing east coast attention to Remembered in Bronze and Stone, Jan – my Sancho Panza – and I embarked on a grand tour of Maritime libraries to give PowerPoint presentations about the war memorials of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and just a few of the men, boys and women who perished in its throes. Starting in Sydney and carrying on through Baddeck, Halifax, Fredericton and Charlottetown I spoke to audiences small and smaller about the treasury of stone and bronze soldiers that grace a good number of the region’s war memorials.

Canada has in excess of 7,500 war memorials, only a few more than two hundred of them feature the life-sized figure of a soldier in stone or metal. Some of the best of these – by the most accomplished artist-sculptors working in Canada in the 1920s – are to be found in the Maritime Provinces: the Emanuel Hahn grieving soldier at Westville NS, Hahn’s Tommy in Greatcoat at Moncton NB, George Hill’s bold trio of Canadian infantrymen in front of the Island Legislature at Charlottetown.

I might have hoped to sell out the remaining stock of Remembered thus compelling my publisher into undertaking a second printing. Just as well that I had trimmed my ambitions to simply this: motivating attendees to pay closer attention to their monuments and raise awareness of the enduring shadows Vimy, the Somme and Passchendaele left in the region’s communities.

Selling a few books turned out to be one of the lesser rewards of the tour. A better one was to have people tell me after a talk that they would look at cenotaphs in a different way and with raised appreciation. Better still were the stories I heard about grandfathers and great-uncles who went off to war in 1915 or 1916 and never came home again, leaving a legacy of grief and regret in families that endures to the present. Or stories about those who did come home again, altered forever by what they had experienced in the battlefields of Belgium and France.

Most of my audiences amounted to fewer than twenty. Some who attended were old friends I had not seen in years. For the most part we were billeted with friends and family – Stephen and Sheila in Halifax, Garth and Carole in Fredericton – but we turned the tour into an opportunity to visit others – George and Joan at Port Greville, Carole and Herb and Nackawic, Verna at Havelock – that delivered just the sort of personal connection that an old dog such as myself has come to cherish.

The most momentous of the six talks was the one that didn’t occur in a library at all. Pal Garth arranged to have me speak to a session of the every-Wednesday-morning Fredericton Golden Club, mostly older guys who like to get together for what Bob Nagel liked to call “good Christian fellowship” and to hear a guest speaker talk about matters likely to interest to men – there are no women in the Golden Club – above a certain age. Eighty-six attended.

Garth promised I would like the folks I met at the Golden Club. I did. Folks like Lyle, a life-long Maple Leafs fan who held no grudge when I admitted to preferring Les Canadiens. The affair opened with a rousing rendition of Oh Canada then the Master-of-Song led the boys through more song: When You’re Smiling, Molly Malone. Far as I could tell, no one held back. I certainly didn’t. We rattled the windows.

After reports from the Ways and Means, Bowling and Finance committees it was my turn. I had been warned that long-winded people get short shrift: go too long and you will get the hook. I spoke for 28 minutes. No one left. A number of the lads came up to say good things about the talk and to tell me more stories about fathers and grandfathers. I even sold books, five of them.

Writing Remembered was highly rewarding for me. Speaking about war memorials and those they are meant to remember is rewarding too. When Stephen King launches a new book I suppose he gets to entertain audiences somewhat bigger than mine at the Baddeck or Fredericton libraries. I hear the print run of Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened is 300,000, oh, about a hundred times that of Remembered. That’s alright: I hope they have as much fun in their book tours as I’ve just had in mine.

Yellowlegs, Shaggy Manes, a Mess of Poutine Crevettes

Off we went with Garth and Carole to renew acquaintance with the Gaspesie – Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. For Jan and I the previous encounter might have been fifteen years ago, for Garth and Carole more like fifty. Recollections were rusty.

At Carleton-sur-Mer Jan spotted a barrachois poking into the widening Bay of Chaleur: a narrow spit featuring a bird blind. We went there. Savannah sparrows and American pipits foraged in the seaside prairie; on the beach a bald eagle dismembered a carcass of indeterminate provenance as gulls stood watch, awaiting opportunity. Squadrons of black ducks and mergansers assembled nearby. Later, while the others took mid-morning comfort of cafe and croissants amandes at la Mie Veritable – I went back out alone and was rewarded by the sight of a brace of falcons – peregrine and merlin – heading purposefully to points south.

A bit further along Highway 132, in New Carlisle, another birding opportunity availed itself. At the Jean-Paul Dube sanctuary, more savannahs and pipits showed themselves while two greater yellowlegs left a lasting impression, both visual and aural, on pal Garth. In the heart of New Carlisle stands a bronze life-sized likeness of the village’s most famous native: Rene Levesque, beloved by Quebec nationalists, founder of the Parti Quebecois.

At Cap-d’Espoir we made a little waterside cabin our base camp for two nights. The cabin provided an excellent vantage for watching surf scoters and gannets and relishing the ship’s-prow cape that gives the community its name. In the evening, at the splendid Cafe du Centre, we dined regally on raclette, spaghetti fruits mer, flan caramel et al.

Late September proved a good time to mount our assault on Perce and the great rock that attracts hordes of tourists in high season. Many of the tourist shops were closed; we were spared the nine-dollar public sparking fee those who arrive in July and August are privileged to pay. Rocher Perce, the big rock that is the town’s main tourist draw was just as striking, just as memorable as it was 15 and 50 years ago.

At Gaspe town I completed a grail quest of sorts: seeing the only Emanuel Hahn war memorial figure in Canada that had previously eluded me. It occupies a prominent place right at the water’s edge as one approaches Gaspe from the south. Alas, the Hahn is a little the worse for the attentions paid it over the years: a piece of the grieving soldier’s nose knocked off, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand similarly abused. Do not assume that everyone regards a war memorial in an attitude of respect or reverence.

The very nice lady at the visitor centre across Highway 132 from Hahn’s granite soldier offered options on where to take mid-day sustenance. We chose the Restaurant Brise-Bise because, the nice lady said, that is where we would find the original poutine crevettes – the category of poutine featuring fresh shrimp. All four of us took our friend’s advice and, though shrimp poutine might not be an indulgence one should enjoy on a daily basis, on this occasion we were unanimously happy with the recommendation.

We erased some of the Brise-Bise calorie intake with a walk about town, then went to Forillon National Park to burn more in a walk to Grand-Grave toward the Cap de Gaspe. We stepped around very fresh bear scat but had to make do without a close encounter with the beast that deposited it.

Near the Gaspe Hahn I had spotted a fresh crop of shaggy manes, one of the choicest of wild mushrooms. We harvested these; chef Jan made the most of them back at the Cap d’Espoir cabin.

North of Forillon Highway 132 takes on a very different look. The low-lying, cheek-by-jowl communities of the Gaspesie south shore suddenly give way to hills and forest that are a Jacob’s-coat of colour in the early weeks of autumn. At Pointe-a-la-Renommee, the hills a blaze of colour, we stopped at the reconstruction of the first maritime radio station established in 1904 by the resourceful G. Marconi.

Culinary rewards continued: at the Restaurant L-‘Etoile du Nord in Pointe-a-la-Fregate some of us opted for the table d’hote. I felt particularly well rewarded for my selection of palourdes croustillantes and gros petoncles -- a medley of clams and scallops for those suffering as I do from chronic unilingualism. At La Martre we paused to gawk at the handsome red phair, a wooden lighthouse in operation since 1906.

From La Martre to Sainte-Anne-des Monts Highway 132 hugs the coastline at the base of the Chic-Choc Mountains, a dramatic road that must have cost millions per kilometre to build. As we cruised the north shore Garth happily seized the role of musical director. Robert Charlebois not being included among Garth’s onboard selection of CDs, we listened instead to his treasury of country music classics – Porter Waggoner, Patsy Cline, George ‘No-Show’ Jones, Eddie Arnold and the immortal Conway Twitty. Those who cherish country music above all other genres would have trembled in euphoria.

Sainte-Ann-des Monts availed one last culinary delight. At the Restaurant du Quai I opted for chaudree de palourde and bourgots a l’ail – clam chowder and winkles in garlic, if you prefer the bill-of-fare in English. After four days in the Gaspesie I decided that – aside from the birding ops, the scenery, the wild mushrooms, the happy conclusion of my Hahn grail quest – the regional cuisine all by itself is reason enough every fifteen years or so to pile into a comfortable car with bosom pals and revisit the Gaspesie. D’accord.