The Tree Everybody Knows. At Least on Our Road.

From my earliest memory, the tree has always been there. Along the road home. Though there are trees, trees, trees everywhere, this one has always stood out.  Winter and summer, covered with snow or enduring yet another parching summer drought, the tree  watches by the road, an ever welcome sign that I am nearing home.

The tree stands out because, among the hordes of red cedars growing up around its feet, it is a pine.

The county once had great stands of pine–until the lumbermen arrived.  The tallest and best were in high demand as ships’ masts for the royal navy.  We still have a Royal Road which was once the trail along which the massive pines were hauled to the water’s edge, destined to help sail ponderous vessels into battle.

So pines, once abundant, are now  a rarity in my neighbourhood. This is the only one I’ve noticed in the wild by my road.

Our neighourhood pine, quietly distinct against the sky.

Our pine is not particularly large though it must be at least  hundred years old.  Clutching for life in our thin, shaley soil does not make for towering growth. However, it is tall enough to stand above its neighbours and is immediately noticeable because of its bent top and its lean from withstanding our vigorous westerly winds.  Instead of growing straight, it swoops sideways probably from some accident as a sapling it carries to the end of its days. How the twig is bent, as they say.

As I child, I watched for it out the window of our old Ford truck.  Back then, it stood in what was known as Roy’s pasture where Roy’s cattle spent their summers grazing.  The land has been sold long since and now the red cedars are gobbling up all the open spaces where the Herefords used to roam.

Nevertheless, the pine still stands above them, serene in its field, witness to model T’s and SUVs, wartime bombing practice, generations of cows and calves dozing in its shade, packs of spandex clad modern cyclists, and all our local regulars going to and from their work each day.

I used to think it was just me who thought of this tree as an old friend. But probably not.  I’d love to know how many others also believe they are the only ones who give this special sentinel  a wave and a nod as they go by.  Here’s hoping it lasts another hundred years. Long may the chain saw stay away.

 

Swans in Winter, A Matter of Survival

Mute swans are an invasive species, descended from a few birds introduced in the 1800s as park and estate ornaments.  They have multiplied to the point of being considered a pest for their aggressiveness in driving off native species and their enormous appetites so hard on our water plants.  A swan can put away as much as eight pounds of vegetation, as well as frogs, etc. in a day. Not long ago, I looked out to see the entire marsh channel filled with them, graceful white creatures floating so delicately.  There must have been hundreds.  Next time I looked, they were gone, having swiftly cleaned up the handy food supply, I suppose.

Swans caught in their every shrinking patch of open water.

My pair of swans, which return to my wetland yearly to raise a family, nearly expired of drought last year.  This year they hatched seven fluffy babies and raised at least six of them to flying age. I assumed they had gone off to join the crowd for the winter.  So imagine my surprise to look out and see three of them still floating in a tiny patch of open water with ice closing in all around.

After slipping back to take some pics, I thought the wings of two of them looked odd.  That night, the temperature dropped to -20C, freezing the pond solid. The swans disappeared, quite sensibly I thought, gone to find a more congenial spot. However, I soon received an email from our local wildlife rescuer saying that he had chased two of them along the road about a mile away because they seemed to have injured wings and couldn’t fly.  He failed to catch them because they were otherwise healthy and strong and too fast on their big webbed feet. They vanished into brush far out of reach.

Rescuers, net in hand, tramp off into the cedars to find the swan in distress.

I follow the advice of our locally famous naturalist and stay out of wildlife dramas.  Not so the rescuers. Our local volunteer is afire for helping the sick, injured or threatened, the same fellow who, in the summer, can produce an instant lecture on the desperate importance of saving turtles from the road.  He convinced the police to keep and eye out.  They informed him that they spotted a swan near the village. That was the extent of their aid.  Our rescuer was outraged that neither the police, the fire department or the apparently idle road crew in the road maintenance terminal would help to corral the bird. He resorted to me for help and stopped a county truck on the road, convincing the two women workers inside to join the rescue party. 

Of course we made so much noise crashing through the cedars that the swan ran off.  A meandering search ensued with me wondering why we didn’t just follow the webbed tracks in the snow.  Yet all was not lost.  An intrepid young man from town arrived, their go to expert for remote rescues and kayak heroics.  I got sent home.

Young swan rescued from starvation during the severe drought last summer.

Later, I found out this new tracker did not give up until they actually captured the bird which will now winter at the animal rescue haven.  Other swans also arrived there.  One was taken in by  woman who picked it up at the roadside where it had been hit by a car.  It, unfortunately, did not survive.  Another, struck on the big bridge over the bay, ran out onto the bay ice which was far to thinly frozen for people to step on. So, it stood about, occasionally splashing in a wet puddle, for all to see driving by. The current deep freeze may have by now encouraged someone to risk their neck to bring it in. 

Catching a large, angry swan, injured or not, is no mean feat. They can easily break an arm and stab viciously with their bills.  So kudos to all those intrepid souls who undertake the hardest rescues.  They help make sure my pond has swans again in the spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Almost Burned the House Down. A Cautionary Tale.

What a  shock to get up and discover a blackened, ashy piece of wood lying on the floor in front of the wood stove.  A piece that has obviously been on fire fairly vigorously in the night while I was asleep.

Lucky for me that the wood burned out instead of flaring up to catch on nearby kindling and newspaper and set the house on fire. Like those heart pounding near misses we survive when driving, the universe provides periodic frights to make us wake up and pay attention.

I had been getting careless with fire.

My trusty wood stove, which heats the house all winter, is airtight, modern, insurance approved, low emission and so safely designed I can put my hand flat on its cool back metal when the logs inside are roaring.  The pipes are clean, the chimney lined, the chimney top netted to keep silly birds from falling in and incinerating themselves.  I have smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers and even a long hose hooked to the water system.

But I don’t have a safety check on my own behaviour.

Fire, friend of humans since we first figured out it could roast mammoth haunch and warm a cave, lies ever treacherously in wait to devour all our substance and us too.  It only needs the tiniest opportunity; a tossed cigarette butt, a frayed electrical wire, a jammed toaster, a match not quite out to rise up from its domestic docility and swallow us whole. The California wildfires graphically reveal the raging hunger latent inside each tame looking spark.

                                              Fire in the wood stove behaving itself.

 Since my stove is in an unfinished basement, sitting on bare concrete, I don’t feel the need for tidiness that would be called for by, say a white shag rug and a spotlessly gleaming living room. I chop kindling on a block beside the stove, an enjoyable activity that induces a state of zen like tranquility.

Chopping kindling creates wood chips.  Chips that accumulate just below the stove and scatter across the floor. Next to the stove is my basket of kindling along with matches and newspapers.  Beside that, should the floor fire have got going, is about a cord of very dry firewood stacked to the ceiling so I won’t have to resort to the outdoor woodpile until after the New Year.

The wood was probably ignited by some tiny small spark that escaped attention when the stove door was open.  Those flying little glows are hard to spot and seem to die out in moments.

Some do. Others don’t.

Embers can have a deceptively long life inside a blackened coal. Early folk carried embers for hours, hot enough start the next campfire.  In our automatically heated comfort, people are forgetting how to live with our ancestral partner, open flame. Some folks in town, for instance,  nonchalantly tossed out warm ashes in a plastic bag and set the whole back of their building ablaze.

My bit of wood burned cleanly enough and small enough not to set off the touchy smoke alarm near the stove. The wood chips I left around kindly did not ignite.  I got off with a stiff warning to smarten up if I don’t want to be incinerated in my bed.

Point taken.  The chips have been swept up and flammables moved beyond reach of stray sparks.  The best safeguards do not protect against human stupidity. I’ll try to stay out of the stupid category at least until the stove goes cold in the spring.

 

 

 

 

First Snow of Winter. Always a Thump on the Side of the Head.

Yesterday was almost 9C and lightly raining so I went to sleep lulled by the promise of continued gentle autumn, perhaps even green grass right up the the holidays.

  Ha!

Awoke to white on the ground and white all around.  The first snow of  the season had arrived as a smug reminder from Jack Frost of what the weather imps are planning to brew up. What’s more, the county salt truck with the big snowplow already bolted on, has just rumbled past, spraying down slippery spots on the road.

First light snow on farm fields

First dusting of white on the empty fields.

Oh, it’s not far below freezing and the sun will no doubt melt the white away before lunch time. The forecast says it will be as much as 9C above on again, a clear attempt to lure us back into a state of foolish delusion.  Then, ka-blamm, a big freeze will hit to turn the soft ground to rock and send foolishly lingering wild geese skidding idiotically across ice on the pond.

Now all the jobs to be got done before winter loom up.  I didn’t do them earlier because it was too hot.  Or too windy.  Or too damp.  Or too nice to bother with  jobs. Now it’s cold and inconvenient to open up the well to see that well heater still works, haul the battery out of the lawn tractor, battle the certain rush to get vehicle rustproofing done, bring out the chain saw to trim back the  tree branches that blocking the view, tarp the woodpiles, put garden tools away, retrieve the hummingbird feeder, etc. etc.  Pleasant procrastination always has its price.

Bird tracks in snow.

The birds have been her already looking for a handout.

Snow is a reminder to stock up on bird seed. The pesky, marauding raccoons go topid for the winter, I hope.  Which means the birds finally have a chance at food before the feeder is rifled by the ring-tailed thieves. Got to stuff back the insulation the cats have ripped out in search of mice.  Got to find and sweep up the dehydrated corpses of mice who made the mistake of trying to move in for the winter.  Put my trusty bicycle to rest and get out the walking poles for snowy roadside hike which will be the winter form of minimum exercise. I might even contemplate having another go at the cross country skis which stranded me in a slippery hollow last year or the bear paw snowshoes hanging so ornamentally on the basement wall.

There will be coyote, wolf, deer, rabbit and all sorts of smaller tracks to scout for winter snow is like a newspaper reporting all the animal business that took place when I wasn’t looking. Sometimes there are so many coyote tracks they must have been having a dance party.  Yet another smart reason for my kitties to live indoors.

So now the sun is out, the white vanishing away like dew and the insidious call of procrastination has begun to whisper. I’ll ignore it this time. The snow will be back.  And I like to avoid shivering as much as I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praying Mantids Take to the Road. Are They Suicidal or Giddy from Romance?

Usually, it’s very hard to find a praying mantis. These majestic insect predators camouflage themselves so skillfully you can stare and stare and never notice them.  You’d swear they were just twigs until one condescends to move. To come upon one once or twice a summer is a true privilege.

Um, which way to the off ramp?

Now, on my autumn bike ride, I find them standing in the road. Last ride, I counted six.  Four, of course, were flattened.  The other two seemed casually  waiting around for the speeding tires to take them out.

So would could lure them from the safety of bushes out onto the suicide strip?

Perhaps a real suicide wish, instant death on the pavement rather than a slow freeze in the coming cold.

They look to me more like large females slowed by abdomens swollen with eggs waiting to be laid. They’re probably judgement impaired by the giddy euphoria of just biting off the head of their mate. Apparently, losing his head makes the male mate more wildly when the impediment of a brain is efficiently removed.

Big mamma (I think) back in the long grass where she belongs.

It’s the eggs that survive the winter in a sturdy egg case, not the mantids (plural of mantis for you spelling spotters). Of course you can keep a praying mantis indoors as a pet if you are willing to mist it daily for moisture and keep up the live cricket supply so it can hunt and dine gruesomely before your eyes.

I bike around the dead ones, help the live ones across and hope I’m doing my bit to increase the hordes of new mantids hatching in the spring. How else do I get to stare and stare and pat myself on the back when I manage to spot one out in the greenery munching down a grasshopper and dreaming of headless romance.

 

 

Dead Frog Alley: Biking the Splatter Road.

Biking on country roads requires a certain ability to stare straight ahead, steadfastly ignoring the  prompts of one’s peripheral vision.  This, unless you are  turkey vulture, is the only way to sail past the assorted road kill ornamenting the route.  Unless you navigate a fixed route regularly, you may not realize how much carnage goes on along our roads.

On my own two mile stretch there are, just today, two dead raccoons, two headless water snakes, one flat black squirrel and countless frogs.

The frogs are a special circumstance, a result of our recent heavy rain.  There is something about a ripping downpour that brings out frogs by the horde to leap about on the road with wild abandon.  Like the froggy version of Singin’ in the Rain. This, of course, results in a froggy massacre that leaves little bodies on the shoulder and mere pale streaks on the paving to indicate former amphibians. City drivers can freak out in a  when suddenly faced with a rain lashed highway full of still hopping, squished and about to be squished frogs under that driver’s tires.

The carnage changes with the seasons.  In the spring, it is the garter snakes emerging from hibernation and crossing the road to summer hangouts.  Then there are the turtles making their ponderous way up from the marsh and across the road to lay their eggs, some deliberately hit by the depraved behind the wheel.  Saddest are the big snappers, probably thirty or forty years old, easily seen but struck down anyway. In the fall it’s black and orange woolly bear caterpillars attracted to the fatal warmth and smoothness of the asphalt.  And the snakes again, heading back to their hibernation dens and probably slowed by cool weather. 

There are the chipmunks, the bunnies, the squirrels, the skunks and even the odd fox, who regularly bite the dust. If only they wouldn’t change their minds just before they reach safety. Raccoons seem especially clueless though so many get killed on the roads that you’d think the road foolish genetic strains would be depleted by now, leaving only the ones who wily enough to survive.

But perhaps even raccoons are not as suicidal as all the birds that insist on darting across, only a couple of feet off the road, in front of a speeding vehicle.  Robins and blackbirds love to do this and often pay dearly.  Meanwhile crows, who regularly play chicken with traffic in search of snacks on the asphalt, never seem to get killed.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dead crow even on the fastest highways.  Not for nothing are they deemed among the brainiest of avians.

Animals are not equipped by nature to judge the unnatural speeds of metal monsters hurtling toward them, often behind blinding headlights. In winter, with so many little creatures in hibernation, things are much better, except for the bunnies and deer.  I have come across a deer in two pieces, well gnawed by coyotes.  Thankfully, the road crews (bless the brave shovel guys) will clean up the big stuff. As for the continual spattering of small stuff, I just stare straight ahead and keep pedaling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs in Costume. Fancy Chickens. Giant Vegetables. It’s Fall Fair Time Again.

Tiny rider’s chances in the timed obstacle course depend on how fast dad can run.

Our local fair is one of the best. It’s been going since 1836 so it’s had a lot of practice. Once a year, dietary contraints do not exist.  One is free to fill up on candy floss, ketchup covered sausages, funnel cakes, pizza, deep fried pickles and Mars bars, hot donuts crunchy with apple cinnamon sugar and chocolate ice cream.

Yes, it’s a quilt. Our local stitchers are prime!

Fueled with these delights, one can take in the miniature horse show, baby ducks, the karaoke corner and the rows of antique tractors.  The arena becomes a temple of county handwork. Magnificent quilts, unbelievably intricate fretsaw creations, entries from all the old age homes fill one end. The hockey rink hosts tables of fruits and vegetables, including the competitive giants.  Entries in the baking contest are all safely behind glass. Local artists vie for Artist of the Year award. Round the edges the Air Cadets and such optimistically hand out brochures. 

Kids can enter the dog show with prizes for longest ears, shortest ears, biggest, smallest and best costume. No cares about pedigree here.

Fancy chicken shows off it’s fluffiness.

Creative veggies make a horse.

Big tractor presents its tough face to farming challenges.

Beyond the arena is the horse show ring where kids on ponies trot through their paces and big horses gallop an obstacle course for the best times. Keep going and you hit the cattle barn where earnest 4H kids lead their carefully curried heifers and steers they’ve raised around the ring for judges approval.

When you’ve checked out the fancy fowls in the poultry barn, you can hit the midway, try to win a stuffed tiger, fly to the sky in Pharaoh’s Fury, eat a sno cone, join the washroom line up. If you still have energy left, you can take in the demolition derby from the fair’s original exhibition stand, enjoy the wrestling show or rock the night away to the evening’s entertainers.

Wheeee!

Simple to say, a good time was had by all. We’re already looking forward to next year. 

When Vimy Came to Visit

Vimy biplane replica touching down in our little airport.

At first, you could hardly make them out. Then three little dots grew in the sky.  The dots resolved into three ancient looking biplanes flying slowly toward us, engines droning throatily in the air.

Shouts went up, ranks of cameras swung to catch the moment, the three biplanes made a stately pass overhead, turned to do it again, then, one by one, touched down on the runway of our little local airport.

Hurrahs went up. Ghosts from the past were honouring us with  visit.

Motor is open for all to see.

The three biplanes are replicas of warplanes flown in the First World War. After hitching a ride in modern cargo aircraft, they made a emotional flypast at the Vimy memorial in France this summer to comemmorate the 100th anniversary of the battle for the high ground of Vimy Ridge that cost Canada so dearly. Now they were flying across the country at about the same speed as you could drive a car.

Flying goggles having a rest.

A peep inside the cockpit.

As soon as they lined up, the crowd swarmed them, peering into the open cockpits, staring into the engines behind the propeller, peppering the pilots with questions.

Quaint, slow and small as the aircraft look, they were killers in WWI. After overcoming skepticism about what possible use these newfangled toys could be, early planes proved themselves by bringing back vital recconnaisance. The next step was pilots tossing down hand grenades and dropping small bombs since the planes could carry very little.

Hanger at camp built to train pilots in World War II

Air to air combat began with pilots shooting pistols at each other and mostly hitting nothing. Then an enterprising French airman took a machine gun up and aerial warfare truly begun. Especially when they figured out how to fire the machine gun without also shredding the propeller.

The stop to visit us was entirely appropriate since our well preserved military camp was hurriedly built as a place to train pilots for World War II. It still has the watchtower against saboteurs, a great hanger now used by the flying club and rows of rickety barracks cabin where Commonwealth trainees must have frozen when the wind howled through in the winter.

Bye, bye Vimy stalwarts. Good luck too.

Our visitors stayed for two hours at our before taking off again for their next stop which would take four hours, at their unhurried pace, in the air. Goodbye Vimy.  Wouldn’t it be splendid to also say goodbye to war.

Tall Ships Make Me Feel Short

Climbing about the rigging, agile as squirrels.

I’m a sucker for sailing ships.  Not puny yachts and weekend sailboats, but the real thing.  Mighty ships from another era with masts and sails that dare the deeps before the wind and storm. So when the tall ships stopped at the nearby town of Bath, I was right there to swarm aboard and pretend I was Jane Tar.

Only a fraction of the complicated ropes everywhere on a sailing vessel.

One thing you don’t realize until you get up close is that these ships are big. A great mass sitting in the water of planking, hatches, towering masts and furled sails. You can get a little seasick just from touring them at the dock.  How, you wonder, do they ever  control all this out on the open sea?

Below decks, bend over and watch your skull.

The country’s tallest ship was there, the Empire Sandy, which slipped off to thrill a crowd of passengers with a three hour cruise.  On the practically windless day, the sails were set to give them their money’s worth. Dozens of eager faces grinned over the rail, dreaming they were pirates.

At the dock, I toured a replica Great Lakes schooner which the captain told me had to be reproduced by diving on wrecks to figure out how to put the gear together. The surprise was going below and discovering that the ship, below decks, could only navigated bent over or you risked your skull on a beam. How did they escape brain damage lurching about under here on a storm?

A couple of soldiers from the war of 1812.

The same with an even bigger ship, a black painted brigantine with masts thicker than a body and neck cramping space below. All the meals for the crew were cooked on a wood burning stove with the pipe thrusting up through the deck to let out the smoke. The stove top sported railing to keep the pots in place against the roll of the waves. Fire hazard was all I could think on a plunging ship wooden ship full of flammable  help and tar.

And ropes?  Well, ropes were everywhere. Thick ones, thicker ones, coiled ones, stretched ones and spare ones. Very clear where the term “learning the ropes” came from. True sailors have to have enormous webs of rope inside their heads.

Big and small, sail moves them all.

A schooner features in my sequel to The Tomorrow Country, so the chance of a bit of research was terrific. I was free to imagine the howl of the wind and the plunge of the bow into smashing waves. Also to glimpse the discomfort and the danger. The romance of a sailing ship is alluring on paper, but not so much in the teeth of a gale with only your wits and a death grip on the wheel to keep you off the rocks. Who can forget the dramatic sinking of the HMS Bounty replica in Hurricane Sandy and the dangerous Coast Guard rescue operation that required. I enjoyed the eye-opening expedition into the bowels of vessels that are now mostly training boats and nostalgic curiosities. When I sail, I’ll choose a ship with a big engine and plenty of standing room below.

 

Thistles: Toughest Thugs of the Weed World, Able to Repel Norse Invaders

July is the month when suddenly, thistles are higher than your head and they rip holes in your arm when you try to pass. There are plenty of thistle varieties but I am talking about the Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) which also has other descriptive names such as “stinger needles”, “cursed thistle”, “creeping thistle” and “lettuce from hell”.  To call it the Canada thistle is a misnomer and a slight on Canada’s reputation.  Like the dandelion and so many of our other weeds, the “lettuce from hell”, is an import from Europe which took hold, probably with the first sack of grain off the first sailing ship, and won’t let go.

Heavily armed with needle-sharp spines.

Centuries of hostility have helped the thistle to evolve into an almost invincible warrior.  It is perennial so it never dies.  It blooms and produces seeds nonstop from June until the frost kills it.  When cut down, it blithely springs up again twice as vigorous.  Its fluffy seeds float lightly through the air to start new colonies long distances away.  Roots snake out twenty feet, sprouting little new plants all along the way.  And don’t even think that digging the thistle out of the ground will stop it.  Each tiny, broken fragment of root left behind will regenerate into a new plant to more than replace the uprooted parent.

Nope. Won’t eat ’em. No thorny thistles for me! Bet the goats won’t touch them either.

No animal will eat the thistle for it is covered with razor sharp spines on   stem and leaves. Spines penetrate clothes and even shoes to plunge sharp needles into flesh, maddeningly painful until you find and extract them one by one.

Goldfinch in courting splendor, waiting for thistles to go to seed so he can feast and start a family.

So how’s a besieged soul to prevent the monsters from taking over the land? You used to be able to spray them with handy dandy herbicides from the hardware store but bans, something about cleaning drinking water, now prohibit that.  You get a big fat fine if you’re not spaying poison ivy or other plant that is actually poisonous.  There are nifty agricultural sprays but suppliers won’t sell them to civilians, only certified pesticide handlers. The organic folk say to spray them with a planet-loving mix of vinegar, salt and dish soap which will kill in twenty-four hours. 

Ha! Vinegar makes thistles laugh and get even greener.

Thistles do have one fan, the goldfinch.  These little yellow birds love to devour thistle seeds and even put off their nesting until they can line their nests with thistledown. Cleverly, they create a soft home from the thorniest of farmland bullies.

Royal emblem of Scotland. The thistle.

Royal emblem of Scotland, thorns and all. From Wikipedia Commons

And the thistle managed to make itself the national emblem of Scotland because it once saved the land from Norwegian invaders.  Legend has it that a Norse army, creeping in the surprise the Scots, stepped on thistles and yelped in pain. The sleeping Scots awoke and promptly defeated the attackers, saving the day. In 1687, King James III instituted the Most Noble and Most Ancient Order of the Thistle to honour outstanding contributors to the nation.

Perhaps there should also be an award for outstanding invader. The thistle would win, spines down.