One Hundred Years of the Village Women’s Institute. The Women Who Create Civilization

Our little village just held a celebration for its local W.I. (Women’s Institute). The village Town Hall was packed as awards were handed out and achievements reeled off.  For a century this intrepid group, through hard times and war time, worked to improve life in this little corner. Before WWII, for instance, they bought a rough strip of land for $30, held work parties to clear it and installed the swings, slide, seesaw I played on as a kid.  In the Great Depression, they banded together to raise enough money to save the town hospital.  They have handed out scholarships, fed the hungry, held endless teas, dinners, meetings and events to support all sorts of neighbourhood needs. When down to only three local members and facing extinction, a new generation stepped in to revive the feisty group.

Girls’ project from sixty years ago full of essays, encouragement and new horizons opened.

They are a branch of the Women’s Institute founded in 1897 by Adelaide Hoodless after her child died of contaminated milk, their mission to bring education, new skills, help and connection to the rural women of the land.

Like much female work, their hard-won achievements are often taken for granted and origins forgotten.  Yet your bread come hygienically wrapped, bright lines on the road keep you safe in fog and rain, labels on your clothes that tell you the fabric and its care, poisonous products are clearly marked, roadside breathalizer tests catch dangerous drunks, railway crossing have flashing signals, train stations have washrooms, and your milk is pasteurized to protect you from tuberculosis, Salmonela, E. coli, Listeria and a host of other lethal pathogens.  All due to the labours of the Women’s  Institute.

Long-serving member wearing the historical costume her mother sewed for the W.I. anniversary celebration fifty years before.

They are just one manifestation of the civilizing power of women.  In research for my novel, The Tomorrow Country, and its upcoming sequel, I discovered that most of the reforms that make life tolerable come about through female efforts. In Britain, as in North America, there is this vast but often invisible force pushing for our betterment.  Notable advances may suddenly have some man as the visible champion, the drive behind it is the usually women. 

Denied public participation in the 19th century, this force, as today, manifested itself in the church groups, improvement societies reading clubs, ladies’ aids, women’s auxiliaries, etc., etc. that provide the groundswell energy, the critical mass that pushed the reforms into being.  The Victorian women were alight with the concept of human progress and the certainty that all social ills could be righted with enough effort and care. Women worked without pay, volunteering from busy home lives, often without recognition, pushing and pushing to get the men to finally legislate social advancement. They still do. Queen Elizabeth II herself has been a member since 1943.

Wherever the W.I. gathers, there is always food, glorious food. And on the monogrammed plates specially ordered for the 50th anniversary celebration. We got to take them home as souvenirs. They are too fragile for modern dishwashers.

These women, as always, provide the bedrock of civilized society. Education opportunities for every child, equal pay for women, access to divorce courts, fair parental guardianship, raising the age of consent for girls, protection of migratory birds decades before environmentalism, female safety when traveling, aid to starving countries, appointment of women to the senate, financial security for the handicapped, old age pensions for all, the list goes on and on. Issues men seem blind to, women spot right away and get on the case.

Some of the many past presidents standing to be honoured for decades of service, silver-haired now but still going strong.

Women such as those in the our thirteen member village W.I are the steadying ballast of society, the ones who see how to make life better and make it happen. Their motto, For Home and Country, remains as true today as it was in 1897. So let us thank them and salute them and hope they someday achieve the level of indigenous women who did not allow men to go to war without female consent. What a social advance that would be!





Goose Babies Everywhere

The flocks of Canada geese that arrive from the south to congregate on my pond in the spring generally disperse at nesting time. The many nearby marshes are inviting. However, a great many now seem to have decided that the pond suits them just fine and built nests where they landed.

Goslings start out very tiny. For goodness sake, get the family off the road!

The results are apparent as the geese lead their offspring out into the open pasture to graze, graze, graze. At first, they were small yellow balls struggling through the tall grasses. But this year’s grass seems to be extraordinarily nourishing. The goslings are almost half as big as their parents and starting to turn a darker, more grown up colour. With so much rain this spring, the verdure is thick and rich, easily supporting all the geese as well as all the cattle munching away at the other side of the field.

A babysitting sentinel always keeping watch while gosling gobble lunch.

The goose parents also appear to have a day care arrangement to get a little time for themselves. One goose couple appeared to be in charge of about forty youngsters bunched around their feet while the rest of the field was dotted with goose pairs blissfully dining together free of young ones. Perhaps this is the goose equivalent of date night and may be much needed. Canada geese mate for life and can live around 25 years, staying together longer than a great many people. Marriages may need a spot of maintenance now and then.

Running for the safety of the pond as fast as they can go.

The geese are very protective of their families. When out en masse, there is always at least one long necked sentinel keeping sharp vigil while the rest forage. They are oblivious to traffic unless a vehicle slows. Should a person appear, no matter how distant, they herd their charges back to the safety of the pond as fast as the youngsters can run. Until the babies can fly, they could make an easy lunch for foxes, coyotes and whatever else can move faster than little waddling feet.

Goose couple enjoying a little peace without the kids.

Right now, though, they are all out in the pasture gobbling away, the goose version of ravenous growing teenagers who cannot be filled up no matter how many groceries are hauled home from the store. Luckily, the grass supply is endless and the goose population will get another substantial boost before migration time.

Maple Syrup Slurping and What Real Farm Animals Look Like in Spring

Maple in the County has arrived, an annual celebration of our local maple syrup producers. Folks flock for wagon rides through the sugar bushes, visits to huge modern sap evaporators and, of primary interest, the traditional sausages and pancakes which you slather with butter and drown in maple syrup. Weather is usually nippy, but this year it simply poured rain all day. The wise head straight for Fosterholm’s with its large, warm building, wood stove roaring in the corner and grandma’s pancakes stacked high on paper plates. Unlimited syrup and butter grace the tables and the rain can pour all it wants.

Recently sheared ewe feeding her lamb in their winter pen. Not much fluffy whiteness here yet. The lamb’s long tail will soon be docked.

The brave tramped on to other attractions, such as the new fire truck proudly displayed by the fire department. The firefighters served pancakes and syrup in an open-sided shed with a view of farm implements and full complement of breezes. Visitors around the county could take in demonstrations of syrup making, try lamb burgers under canvas and a look at real farms in the mud and wet of spring.

Maple syrup evaporator. A hot wood fire in the black iron below powers it all and must be fed and tended constantly. And no more sap buckets. Maple syrup comes in from the trees via plastic hose.

The children, of course, wanted to see the animals and got to see them in their fields and pens, unslicked up and slopping through spring conditions. They also quickly learned why farmers wear rubber boots in spring and fall. There is another month, at least, before new green grass is fit for grazing in the fields. Only then can cattle and sheep can shed the muck and manure clinging to their haunches and turn into the sleek and fluffy creatures seen over the fences from the road.

Farm equipment waiting to get on the land. Fuel tanks, steel fencing, a harvester head, sheds full of tools and drums are just a hint of what it takes to run the place. The veteran Farmall tractor has probably worked hard since the 1950s and remains a vital part of the operation.

People came from as far away as Ottawa, often toting fancy cameras and sporting designer rainwear. For children, perhaps it was the first time they had ever touched a lamb and many did not know that “baby cows” are called calves. Likely they learned from parents pointing out the big “male cow ” eyeing them placidly from behind his rails. These little visitors are growing further and further away from their agricultural roots, their bedtime stories now featuring astronauts and race car drivers instead of the gamboling lambs, foals and little pink piglets of earlier days.

Here is your bacon and pork chops on the hoof. No question about the fate of these porcine pals.

Despite the endless rain, the festival was a success. Folks went home replete with pancakes and hauling a carload of kids shrieking on sugar highs. Some even had a closer look at where their food actually comes from. We hope they will think about it, at least a little, each time they slather their whiskey infused maple butter on their urban artisan toast.

Growing chickens kept warm against the weather by a heat lamp behind an old window frame. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to peck about the barnyard for a while before ending up as dinner.

Wild Goose Eccentrics are Back

Hordes of geese flock around my beaver pond in spring and fall before they disperse to nest or finally get frozen out and decide to head south. Canada geese, with their white cheek patch, black necks and grey bodies, appear identical to look at. There isn’t even a difference between male and female as there is in so many other birds. While I’m sure their goose neighbours can spot facial differences and gossip about their characters, people generally cannot.

All alone out in the field. One keeps watch while the other checks out the buffet.

However, one pair sets itself apart so that even I can recognize them. Each year, for a number of years now, they return and pretty well immediately abandon their flock. Their favorite thing to do is stand in the pasture, all by themselves, and pass their time poking about in the grass or just watching the cars go past on the road. They choose the same place every year. Often they stay there all day. When they are done foraging, they plop themselves down and have a good long nap. One watches over the other carefully and gives alarm should anyone try to approach.

These two do not appear very social. They keep to themselves, ignoring the rest of the geese swarming noisily around the water’s edge. Even when a crowd of other geese comes into the field to pluck at the grass, this pair stays off on their own. Nor do they ever appear to raise a family. Throughout nesting season, they still show up in the field, together when one should be home watching a nest. Later, no little troop of goslings follow behind, no nearly adults fly with them to be shown this favourite spot.

The pair ignore the ongoing party at the pond.

Yet, year after year, those two stick together, monogamous, mated for life. Neither has a wandering eye. Perhaps they are a gay couple. Perhaps they have accepted infertility and spend their time in philosophic communion in the pleasant meadow. Perhaps, in early mating discussions, they decided against the labours of nesting and chose a life of leisure and winter touring instead. I’ll enjoy their goosey eccentricity with a summer of watching them ahead.

A Year of Happy Photos

Starting from practically zero with a little old Kodak point and shoot, I have worked my way up to a practically pro level mirrorless camera with assorted lenses, which I still mostly have to learn how to use. Add to that a fascination with Photoshop and the door is open to the weird and even weirder. Photoshop has a massive learning curve and I’m only partway up the slope but, once conquered, one can do just about anything with a photo. Excellent online tutorials show you how to make buildings disintegrate and people fly and giant birds stomp through alien landscapes on the moon. It also means no photo we see today is trustworthy. Plain reality now looks dull. At the very least, there be will smoothing, retouching, colour enhancement, seamless removal of any distracting person or element. Those vivid eyes staring up from magazines have had tone, contrast and that brilliant sparkle added, all the better to mesmerize you.

This year’s award winner: Best Altered Reality

I’ve always had an interest in photography but could not indulge it much in analog days due to film and development costs and what do you do with 300 practice pictures of the cat? Hail the arrival of digital photography! You can take a thousand photos if you want, erase them and start over, all for free. Joining the local photo club, full of avid shutterbugs, provided a monthly theme and the goal of producing ever better photos for the meeting slide shows which are viewed by many highly expert eyes.

Rummie, the cat, napping full circle.
Ghost on the road, trying to stop the doughnut truck.
Summer tranquility and very good balance.

As for me, I can’t wait to get my hands on the total tool kit. Photography is good for writers who tend to live inside their heads. Photography makes you look closely at the real world, noting previously unnoticed details and compositions. Everything becomes a possibility, from the cattle in the pasture to the birds at the feeder to the cars that skid and take out my mailbox. Insects and macro photography (still to be conquered) open up the tiny universe most of us don’t bother to see. I can’t do astral photography or take a decent picture of the moon but, after a club outing involving steel wool set afire, (who knew it would burn) I know how writing with light is done.

What’s that tantalizing fragrance on the wind?
Love getting off the rocks.
Rainy days suck when you’re a gorgeous blue jay like me.

Every unlikely thing is checked for interest. For me, that is the prime directive: there must be something of interest going on. That philosophy must be working. Each year I’ve belonged to the photo club, I have won some kind of award. First for Funniest Photo, next for Best Mode of Transportation and thus time for Best Altered Reality. So another year has begun. This month’s theme is “Winter Fantasy”. Now that opens the door to a lot of fun mischief. I shall re-watch the tutorial on the mysteries of shutter speed and brave the winter snows.

Retro cows via a vintage filter.
These two stood about doing nothing on the paving project in front of the house. I decided to put them to work.

Personal Weight Training Program: Pick Up a Ton and Move it Several Times

Each fall the firewood arrives. Four cords usually.   And I stack them all.

Wood comes by the truckload.

A cord of wood is four feet by four feet by eight feet and is dumped in a heap on my door step each fall. Each piece of wood weighs an average of ten pounds. Every ten pieces that pass through my hands is 100 pounds. So 200 pieces of firewood equal one ton and each cord has hundreds of pieces. Quite a fast way to build muscle.

The challenge.

Partially stacked, neat and tidy. Much more to go.

But wait, there’s more.  The wood is carefully stacked outside until needed in the basement wood stove. Each piece of wood is then lifted from the stack to the wheelbarrow, lifted from the barrow and tossed down to the basement door, tossed inside the basement, stacked in the basement and ultimately carried to stove to feed the fire.  That means a ten pound chunk of firewood has been lifted six times. So each 10 pieces really equals 600 pounds of weight lifting and 200 pieces provides a handy three tons of exercise.

The end result., a happy, well fed stove. No heat as cozy wood heat.

Should I say, move over Mr. Muscleman Atlas? Sure why not.


Tiny Road Kill. It Ain’t Just Raccoons that Get Splatted by Your Car

Roads take a big toll on wildlife.  We have all seen the numerous raccoon corpses, dead skunks, the odd fox and, once in a while, even a deer that really was caught in the headlights.

However, there is a whole other class of road kill people rarely notice.  It is all the small creatures that come to grief on car grilles and windshields. On my bike rides even I have to look closely to see them but they are there.  The butterflies, dragonflies, woolly caterpillars, grasshoppers, praying mantids, tiny songbirds and assorted frogs and reptiles lying by the wayside. All of them just trying to get across the road unharmed.

Monarch butterfly that will fly no more.

Birds come to grief due to their belief that they can dart past a speeding vehicle at two feet off the ground. Another foot or two of height would save them but they persist in these dare devil low passages. Nature did not design wild critters to accurately measure our unnatural speeds.

Skinny young garter snake looks alive. It’s not.

Praying mantids seem to take to the roads in the fall with disastrous results. Snakes are trying to get back to their hibernation places.  Frogs love to dance on the pavements during the rain, mostly a dance of death.

This year, thankfully, there have been many more monarch butterflies than last year. However that also means more dead beauties by the road side.  Along with grasshoppers and dragonflies, butterflies are killed in large numbers by drivers who never notice the micro collision.

Praying Mantis headed for certain death on a country road.

There’s not much anyone can do about this death toll among the tinier beings among us but at least we might spare a melancholy thought for that faint smear on the road that was once as alive as you or I and also had some place it was going.


Horses in Costume and Deep Fried Pickles. The County Fair is Here Again

Each September the everyone flocks to the county fair, which has run pretty well continuously from 1831 and is still one of the best country fairs going.

Just doing our part to help the bees. And hoping to beat that other horse dressed up like Cleopatra.

With your ticket, parking is free in the ball field.  You head for the dog show where pooches are judged on such attributes as shortest tail, longest ears, best trick, finest couture. Next comes the food trucks with all the usual delectables such as funnel cakes, poutine and Mrs. Mini Donuts.  Stoke up there for  the lawn tractor pull, the barrel racing and the cattle show, both beef and dairy. So many youngsters learning to be future farmers so we can all continue to eat.

Gals and horses, lots of them here, this one trying for the best time on the obstacle course.

The entire hockey arena is dedicated to prize vegetables, giant pumpkins and baking, all the pies and cakes and preserves safely behind glass.  Art and photography entries line the walls. In another room the amazing skill of the county quilters gets shown off in a crowd of intricate quilts. If you have a baby and are local, you can enter the baby show.

A tabby and her library, all fine needlework.

In the poultry barn, llamas, sheep, goats, piggies, ponies and an immense Shire horse are all available for petting. Beside the champion roosters, turkeys and bunnies, there are newly hatched ducklings and yellow baby chicks chirping under their heat lamp. A great hit with the young set.

Town meets country. We need lots more of this.

If simple fun is your objective you can play bingo in the curling rink and dance to golden oldies in the Crystal Palace, the only one remaining on the continent. Oh, and don’t miss the wrestling and the demolition derby.

Awwww, ducklings!

End the evening with a fistful of candy floss and shrieking on the midway. Then home to live down the sugar high and swear off deep fried anything for another year.

A vintage tractor proving it still has the chops in the tractor pull. And a real man behind the wheel.





Sandhill Crane Baby is Now Huge

How fast they grow.  The little fuzzy yellow chick from the spring, the chick that barely came up to mom and dad’s legs, is now a towering young crane,  as big as its parents.  From a distance, you can’t tell the three apart.

Junior is now four feet high with a six foot wingspread.

The only thing lacking now is the distinctive red patch on baby’s forehead.  I don’t know what initiation the youngster must undergo to earn this badge of adulthood. Perhaps by next year, when the family comes back from Cuba or Florida after the winter, junior will have its adult papers. 

Hey, look at my wings, Dad. Just as big as yours.

Though junior can certainly fly, the family hangs about the wetland where the chick was hatched.  They spend mornings out in the cow pasture in front of the house digging about in the grass with their powerful beaks. What they find to eat in the dirt and gravel I can’t imagine, but they sure enjoy themselves. Junior is not above begging treats from indulgent parents.

Feed me, Mom. I’m tired of digging for myself.

I know when  they are there from their trilling cries as they chat together.  Driver’s sharp enough to spot the brownish plumage in the field sometimes screech to a halt and sit watching. Or a camera will emerge. The cranes don’t even mind me climbing the fence and walking close, making me suspect they must have human friends when they vacation in the sunny south. 

It’s only a deer, kid. Ignore that last remark.

They certainly ignore the cattle that share the field and the hordes of Canada geese fattening themselves on new grass before migration. Even when deer show up, they carry on as usual.

  This lucky chick will stick with mom and dad right up until mom gets ready lay eggs for a new season.  Only then is junior forced to leave home and fend for itself, a rude shock no doubt. Not a fan of responsibilities, it may wait five or six years before finally starting a family of its own.

Bye, bye all. See you tomorrow if we get hungry again.

Meanwhile, it is the pampered child of two efficient parents who have managed to fend off predators and raise it to the hulking bird that could almost look after itself if it had to.  Only why bother when mom and dad find the food and take it south for fun in the sun while blizzards blow up here.

Barn Roof is Back On Thanks to a Fire Truck

Finally the barn roof is fixed. After the big wind on May lifted a corner, then folded back a big section like it was paper, the question rose.  To fix the old barn or let it sink into the ground like so many others. These barns are not used much any more so when the roofs go and the barn boards fall off, slow destruction follows even though the great beams inside, often a century or two old, stand firm, true and strong.

So long as they’re kept dry.

Gaping hole torn by the wind.

My old barn has been around since the 1860s and has stood up to every storm including hurricanes.  So I harried the insurance people and got in the repair folk.  I thought they might just fold the roof back in place.  But not so.  The section has to be dismantled, the ancient axe-hewn rafters put individually back in place and new steel hammered on  All by a fellow hanging off the ladder of a retired fire truck.

Hundred and sixty year old rafters, still strong and sturdy, go back to hold up the roof again.

For two days I watched one man hammering, the other man running the ladder controls, responding to hand gestures.  A little to the left, a little higher, watch out for the gap. So now the old gal has a shiny new waterproof roof section and another chance to last a few years longer even though the hay mow is empty and the milking stalls contain only dust and pigeon droppings.

I admire the ingenuity of the workmen and am glad to discover that fire trucks can still have a life of their own after they retire from the front lines.