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Canada, the Kentucky Derby and My Tiny Leap into Video

With the Kentucky Derby coming up, I’m joining fellow author, Muriel Lennox, in bragging about the genetic supercharge Canada has provided to the greatest thoroughbreds of the racing world. 

Ms. Lennox has unraveled a long hidden saga which can’t help but swell Canadian chests. The luck, gambles, inspiration and, too often, sheer skullduggery of racing history make her books read like thrillers.

My part is all this is my first venture into video, a tiny book trailer I put together for Muriel’s latest, Rivers of Gold. You can check it out here:

http://beachhousebooks.ca/blog/

Now that I know it can be done, and was such fun, there will be more in the future, I’m sure.  Meanwhile, don’t miss the Kentucky Derby on May fifth.  No matter what horse you pick, it will carry Canadian fire in its veins.

And for a rollicking gallop through racing’s many astonishing, little known tales, please check out books by Muriel Lennox at: muriellennox.com

Pure love of horses informs them all.

Farm Machines of Yesteryear. Stubborn Bones Have Earned Their Rest.

Recently a bunch of us went for  hike through the back lanes of a farm at the height of maple sugar season. While the gleaming modern tractor sat at the ready, the sides of the lanes were strewn with abandoned farm machinery of a previous era.

Studded iron wheels. Safety unheard of as the seat teetered above all the moving works.

Built of sturdy iron, these machines may slump in the weeds, but they rust very slowly and look as though, with a little effort and repair, they could be pulled from under their layers of dead grasses and put to work again. The shaft to hook up a team of horses is still there. The hard seat for the driver who now only had to handle the team but also the stiff levers lifting and lowering the cutting heads, blades and whatever else needed moving. Strictly muscle power.  No hydraulics here.

 

Old horse drawn hay mower with long cutting arm erect and ready.

From before the era of springs and rubber tires, these old workers display their teeth-jolting iron wheels that squealed, clattered and jounced on every rock and stone.

Many still have dabs of paint.  A few can conjure living memory. But the teams of horses are long gone.  However, they are testaments to agricultural ingenuity with mostly began in the 19th century. Commerce was booming, towns and cities grew, railroads threaded the land, science was making leaps and bound. 

A planter still with drum for fertilizer and boxes for seedling plants.

Yet, in agriculture, farmers complained of tools from the time of the pharaohs, the scythe, the flail, the pitchfork, back breaking stoop labour. Inventors turned their attention and thought surely they do better than that. The mechanical mower appeared, the binder, the corn planter, the cultivator, the thresher with its fire breathing steam engine to drive it.

So, the hulks lying in the long grass mark steps to freedom for farmers and the efficiency that feeds us all.  There was a time when only 5% of the population was urban.  The rest were needed to dig and harvest, hoe and sweat and toil to get our food. 

Sleeping underneath an enfolding pine.

Today the percentage is the other way round.  We can sit in our comfy desk chairs because now huge tractors till the fields, enfolding the farmer in an air conditioned cab complete with entertainment, touch screen displays, instant communication with both people and attached machinery,  GPS, and even adjustable auto guidance, eliminating the need to steer. 

Self driving tractors are close on the horizon, eliminating the need to step into the field at all. One farmer, in comfort, can do the work of crowds of our ancestors.

Modern combine harvests wheat, replacing the scythe and the flail. If you live in a city now and get your food, without toil, from the supermarket, it’s thanks to this machine and its kin.

So I say, let the iron hulks rust in peace.  As steps along the way, they’ve done their job, earned their rest. And I can loll in my spine caressing ergonomic chair, thankful there is no acre of weeds in the corn that I am expected to hoe.

First Brave Caterpillar. In February!

February caterpillar marching on the road.

Quick update on arriving spring.  It’s February 22 and I’m doing my hike down the road.  Until I spot a tiny creature recklessly heading onto the pavement and certain squashing.  To my amazement, it was a caterpillar marching where only days ago the worst snow of the year kept us all holed up in our houses.

The same road only a week before.

I’m not surprised by robins any more as they have figured out how to stay around all winter, as do many Canada geese.  However, the big flocks of geese appeared flying over on the same day as the caterpillar.  And the day after, the indestructible pair of swans showed up again to stake out their  housekeeping domain even though the ice is still eight inches thick on the pond.

Swan pair finally driven out by the first big freeze last year. Now they’re back on the ice to start all over again. they get a medal for determination.

So where did the caterpillar come from?  How did it survived the bitter cold only a week or so before and emerge fat and sassy to trundle onto the pavement? A mystery of nature to me.

I did move it off the road and send it off in the other direction. The caterpillar is  either suicidal to come out so soon from wherever it was hiding  or a sure sign that life is back. 

I’ll pick the latter.

 

 

 

Winter’s Dying. Last Days of Ice and White.

Maybe.

It’s only the middle of February but the forecast is rain during two days of 11C  and the next two weeks will have every day above freezing. I’d say that’s it for the snow and ice.  Last weekend we had days of snow and I was quite handily snowed in.  A heap of shoveling to breach the snowplow drift at the road and my all wheel drive finally got me out and off to town.

Ash trees killed by beavers gnawing at their trunks. Why didn’t they finish the job and use the wood? Wasteful!

For pictures, the landscape is particularly colourless; white, gray, brown, black.  So it was time for a farewell hike over the frozen beaver pond and a walk to the beaver lodge which will be unreachable again until next year’s freeze. The beavers are secure in their iron hard fortress walls which no hungry wolf or coyote can penetrate no matter how furiously they dig. 

The beavers settled on the edge of the now long flooded over farm pond.  This was smart planning for they use the pond to store their winter fodder of twigs and branches, many of which stick out above the ice. A walk on the ice reveals how many young ash trees the beavers have taken down.  There are pointed stumps everywhere. They have also  killed other large trees by gnawing at their bolls. An annoying waste if they are not going to fell the trees  and use them.  They say beavers move on when nearby resources are used up. These beavers have been gnawing for years with nary a sign of shifting their butts elsewhere.

Pond ice soon to melt. Perfect natural skating surface. What fun we had here as kids.

In winter, it is odd to see the pond still and silent, bereft of the teeming bird life that fills it in the summer. The frogs and turtles are settled at the bottom. No dragonflies, no attacking mosquitoes. Only dead reeds and flattened swale. I looked for the swan’s nest but could not find it.  However, life goes on.  The snow is full of deer tracks and coyote tracks and the rabbits have been pretty active too, perhaps dodging the coyotes. Field mice hide in tunnels  under the bushes. The trees at the edge sport squirrels now gamboling about with romance on their minds

Did I have a meteor strike. Time to take back the axe and see.

There’s even a puzzle, a large circle of brown ice radiating from a frozen over hole in the centre. Large radiating cracks make me think of impact.  A visitor from the sky?  Perhaps I’ll take my axe back and see if I can dig up a meteorite before the big thaw swamps it all.

I wait for the red winged blackbirds and won’t be surprised to see the swan pair standing on the last of the ice any day now, eager to set up house again and get this year’s family started.

 

 

 

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.