Monday, September 10, 2018

All That—and Solomon Gundy Too

It is always serendipitous when a guy operating a blog dubbed Peregrinations has a worthy peregrination to tell his handful of readers about. We went to the mainland to join good pals Carole and Garth in seeing how much trouble we might get into at the opposite end of Nova Scotia. A principal target was Shelburne County where in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War thousands of Americans who had sided with the mother country against their tea-partying American fellows decided to relocate to Nova Scotia, still a loyal part of the Empire.

Among the loyalist throng were some three thousand black people, virtually all of them slaves or descendants of slaves, whose support of Britain in the conflict against the folks led by Washington and Jefferson was rewarded with the promise of a better life in Nova Scotia. At Birchtown, main destination of the black loyalists, we visited the Black Loyalist Interpretation Centre and learned the extent to which the promise turned out to be a hollow one. Within just a few years, after enduring great hardship, many of the blacks accepted another dubious proposition—another relocation—this time to Sierra Leone in Africa.

On a sunny Wednesday we went to Cape Sable Island—as far removed-from-Cape-Breton part of Nova Scotia as you will find—to look for birds. The Hawk, perhaps the premier birding destination in all of Nova Scotia, afforded a few turnstones, whimbrels and ‘peeps’—even a rare Caspian tern—but the principal rewards of the Cape Sable junket had nothing to do birds. Garth and I both like to initiate conversation with total strangers. At the Hawk we relished an impromptu chat with a local lobsterman who edified us in spades about the particulars of lobstering in this corner of our fair province. In Clark’s Harbour I was amazed to find a bronze soldier atop the community war memorial. If you’d asked me if I knew all the bronze and soldiers of Nova Scotia I’d have said Yes, absolutely. I’d have been wrong.

History abounds in this part of Nova Scotia. At Barrington we connived to visit not just one museum but four, including the 1765 Barrington Meeting House, built in the aftermath of the Acadian expulsion by transplanted American Quakers and Planters. In the adjacent graveyard the visitor gets to contemplate death’s-head headstones dating back to the same period.

Having learned about one story of man’s inhumanity at Birchtown we headed to Pubnico to immerse in another. We spent an edifying half-day at La Village historique acadien, Lower West Pubnico. The village represents the life that the Acadiens had managed to rebuild for themselves more than a century after the infamous expulsion—Le Grand Dérangement—of the mid-18th Century. Our interpreters, all dressed in period costume, were uniformly terrific: Harry the Blacksmith, Sherman the Boatbuilder, Marcel the Fisherman, et al.  What’s more they all seemed to share the same name—d’Entremont—tenth-generation descendants of the original main man among the pioneers of Pubnico.

Something impressive met the eye in Lower West Pubnico: the great fishing fleet moored at Dennis Point. The lobster boats are nothing like the pipsqueaks tied up at the Big Bras d’Or wharf near the summer cabin. The Pubnico boats—ship might be the better term—are huge, 28’ wide, more than 60’ long. As if that were not enough, Dennis Point also afforded an opportunity to spend a half hour aboard Bluenose II, which just happened to have dropped in for the day.

On Friday we forsook Shelburne County for its Lunenburg counterpart. Lunenburg town, one of Canada’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, offers plenty to impress the eye and engage the grey matter of someone keen on history. And something to please the palate too. Niece Naomi gave us a hot tip: Saturday happened to be the day the annual blueberry festival unfolded at Parkdale in the northern reaches of the county. We went there, and for a lousy fifteen bucks a head got to pig out on an array of down-home Lunenburg County cuisine: Sausage and Sauerkraut, Pudding & Cheese, Hodge Podge, Smeltz Potatoes, Solomon Gundy—and more. Dessert was blueberry pie or blueberry grunt, take your pick. One of our quartet managed to inveigle our young attendant into delivering three desserts. Holy doodle!

The Parkdale feast was the capper of a trip festooned with great grub. I fear when I step on the scale back at the cabin I will not like the number staring me in the face. But what the heck, austerity, restraint and responsibility are not the sorts of attitudes to take into a September road trip with Garth and Carole. A year ago Gaspe was great; Shelburne-Lunenburg was superb this past week. What do we do next year? I know: let’s board a coastal supply vessel for a journey among the southern outports of Newfoundland. Who can say what seafood specialties await?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Table Hockey Hubris

Others might nominate the Canadarm, or the Avro Arrow or the stubby beer bottle but I say, no, the greatest Canadian industrial product of all time is the good old made-in-Canada table hockey game. No contest. I acquired my first about age twelve. It was a terrific tonic. I may have been a bum at baseball and helpless at real, on-ice hockey but I proved to be something like an ace at table hockey.

I had friends willing enough to take me on but none of them could match the intensity I brought to table hockey: one by one they grew tired of losing and would suggest we do something else: stick six-inch firecrackers in country mailboxes, start a grass-fire, throw snowballs at passing cars. Over a period of four or five years I might have worn out three of these wondrous games. At 17 I went off to university, got distracted by other endeavours and forgot about table hockey for a good long time.

Then a few years ago, during a visit to my antique-dealer friend Diane Bradbury, there it was – a table hockey game just like the one I used to play sixty years ago. Six metal Montreal Canadiens, six Toronto Maple Leafs just like the ones of my early teens. It was for sale . . .  amazingly still in its original cardboard box. I snapped it up. Trouble is, after years of neglect in someone’s attic or damp basement, the playing surface was warped and uneven, which made it impossible for the stamped-metal Leafs and Canadiens to show their best stuff. I devised a solution for leveling the ice but it wasn’t until this summer that I got around to actualizing the fix – a combination of a dozen inch-and-a-quarter posts and hardwood levelers all glued together on the underside of the playing surface.

The fix worked perfectly: the playing surface is now as even as the day it came out of its Ontario factory in 1959 or ’64. Suddenly I was back in business – The Table Hockey Terror. Yes, Jan beats me like a drum at cribbage; yes, I am Cousin Lynn’s roadkill at Bananagrams 11 – the toughest of all the Bananagrams varieties – but it turns out that like riding a bicycle, playing table hockey is a skill that can be revived even after years of inactivity.

With the game restored to something very like its original glory I first humbled Jan, then nephews Michael and Rex. Next up was the longest-suffering of my friends, Stephen, a pal since we were both seventeen. Let’s play a five-goal game I proposed – first to five goals wins – and I’ll spot you a 4-0 lead. He agreed. I won. But take my word; table hockey is infectious, irresistible. Stephen couldn’t help himself – he wanted more. The game even delivered revelation, bringing out a side of my old friend I had never seen. Ordinarily a man possessed of the finest decorum and refinement, table hockey soon exposed that Stephen is something else previously unseen – a trash-talker. I ate it up. He got better, much better. I reduced the handicap. The trash talk intensified. I still won.

On Monday we took the game to our friend Carl’s birthday bash. He too was a boy who played table hockey in ages past. It was his birthday: would I go a little easy on him? No. I was merciless.

But there is trouble on the near horizon; I see it plain as day. Also attending Carl’s event were Lynn and Louise, my identical-twin cousins. I introduced them to Bananagrams 11 years ago and for a while – just a short while – I managed to win. Soon enough Lynn reduced me to a stomped-on doormat. I introduced the twins to astronomy and wildflower identification. It didn’t take long before I was eating their dust in both endeavours.

On Monday I spotted the twins no lead whatsoever and managed to beat them both. But we all know what comes before a fall. I watched in fascination as they played each other with absolute intensity, sweat flying off each determined face, each utterly determined to beat the other. I know with complete certainty that it is only a matter of time – and not much of it – before my undefeated streak will come to an end and one of the darlings – Louise or Lynn? – will exult in victory over the Table Hockey Terror. They will come up with something new – a trick I have never thought of – and make me a loser yet again. I dread what I know is certain. What then? To what do I turn? Canasta? Snakes-and-Ladders? Bingo?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dave Stirling, Naturalist Extraordinaire, 1920-2018

David Stirling, the walking embodiment of what the word naturalist is all about, has departed this world. David died at Victoria August 11, nine months into his 98th year.

The initial glue in my friendship with Dave was birds and birding; in time the friendship grew to encompass much more, but birds provided a very good start to a friendship that endured forty years. We met in the late 1970s. I was a fairly recent arrival in British Columbia and had noticed soon enough that the birds of south Vancouver Island were in many cases very different from the ones I’d grown used to in my native Nova Scotia. I fell for birding, and fell hard. To the extent I could I devoted every daylight hour on the weekend to discovering the birds of the Island. I made three great friends—Harold Hosford, Ron Satterfield and Dave Stirling—every one of them a serious birder of long standing, and sought to learn all I could from these three wise men. All three would remain my friends ever after.

Before long I fell victim to a peculiar kind of madness, the birding Big Day, an event in which three or four otherwise sensible people embark on a crazed rush to find as many kinds of birds as can be squeezed into a 24-hour period. It was in early May, about 1980, that Dave and I teamed up for our first-ever Big Day. We managed to list a hundred species in the inaugural try. Dave thought a hundred was a pretty good result. I thought we could do better.  Before the next effort I told the late Peggy Goodwill—operator of the Rare Bird Alert at the time—that Stirling, Bruce Whittington and I would mount another Big Day effort the next day. I also told Peggy that we would get 120 species. Dave was appalled, both at my brazenness and at the difficulty we would have in reaching that number. We got 121.

The next time, Stirling and Hosford joined me for another three-man effort. It was a glorious start: by about 1 p.m. in the afternoon we were already at 126 species, with nearly nine hours of daylight left. Visions of 135 species, 140—maybe even more—danced in my head. Then an insurrection erupted: Dave and Harold demanded we stop for lunch. I was horrified—and resisted. To no avail. We stopped for lunch. They each ordered a beer, then another. After the second beer the Big Day went right off the rails. They decided that half a Big Day was plenty enough: they quit on me. Great as my regard was for them both, I fired them on the spot. In future years Ron Satterfield and Bruce Whittington took their place and that trio eventually pushed the Big Day tally to the mid-130s. But to this day I remain convinced that had Harold and Dave persevered we would have set a south Island mark for the ages.

As time passed the parameters of my friendship with Dave expanded greatly. We had more than birds in common: we both liked travel, books, history and politics. Not everyone does, but Dave and I also liked to argue, especially about politics. We would meet a few times a year—often at Swan’s pub—to talk about our favourite things. Dave would call me a pinko, a leftie I would call him something else. I like to think that over the years each of us forced the other to sharpen his arguments but I doubt that any of our many political rows resulted in either of us changing the other’s mind. Happily, we remained friends.

Dave grew up in the wilds of the Athabaska country of northern Alberta. He lived his boyhood in a log cabin with his parents, brother and sisters. The family survived on what they could gather, grow, trap and hunt. Young Dave spent most of his days outdoors, summer and winter. It was in those days in the wild of the Athabaska that he became a lifelong naturalist.

While still a teenager, in 1939, a war broke out. Dave enlisted in the Canadian Army. With three square meals a day, a comfortable mattress, and a roof over his head that did not leak, he decided he must be about as lucky as anyone could possibly be. He liked his time in the Army, and the officers liked what they saw of Private Stirling: he was offered a chance to take officer training. He graduated from Sandhurst and earned his lieutenant’s commission. Best of all, he survived the war and returned to Canada unscathed.

In the mid-1950s he embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, crossing Australia by motorcycle with his wife Ruth. After that he arrived in Vancouver Island and played a key role in establishing B.C. Parks interpretation programs. He gave any number of young people an opportunity to learn about the natural world and to pass on what they’d learned to park users. For many of these young folks, their experience under Dave Stirling was life-altering: their summers as park interpreters would set them on a life course in natural history and science.

Dave eventually retired but his love of nature, adventure and travel never diminished. Even into his 90s Stirling traveled the world in search of beautiful wild places—and new birds. He continued to build his life list.

I made a point of seeing Dave just a day or two before departing in June for my summer place in Cape Breton. He had failed a good deal but I was struck that his love of nature remained as strong as ever. We spent an hour in the shade of his front deck, looking skyward for birds and other things that pass more slowly: clouds. Among all the other facets of nature that fascinated and absorbed him Dave left ample time for studying and contemplating clouds.

A core bias of mine is that whether we’re aware of it or not, we all feel a duty to make something of our human possibilities. In my life I have known only a few people who have done as worthy a job of meeting that duty as did David Stirling.