Sunday, November 29, 2009

I recant

OK, so Friday’s post was not entirely justified. The ninth month of the old Roman calendar, November, isn’t necessarily any darker than the tenth month, nor than the first one of the new year, named after Janus the god with two faces. I knew it when I wrote it, and knew it even more clearly today.

The forecast this morning was to continue cloudy with occasional showers becoming more frequent in the afternoon. Now it’s Saturday night, a dark November night, but the day, however short, had its share of surprises.

The first was a small strip of blue sky to the northwest and then some brightness from the southeast as the cloud began to thin there. The lighthouse was illuminated over at Mauger’s Beach, you could hear the surf crashing all the way across the harbour, and the long shoal out at Thrumcap was all white water.

Soon the sun was shining and the world came alive the way it does when sun shines right after the rain. The stones in the new walkway glowed in the low golden light.

The split wood from last spring was still piled against the pine tree over by the wellhead.
And the burning bush was now bare except for its crop of tiny bright berries.
Later, when we were driving out to look after the girls, the sun came out again in the middle of a heavy shower, a gorgeous double rainbow arched over the city, and every car produced huge plumes of bright spray along the highway. It was, in fact, quite a beautifully lit November day.

Tonight is dark, but then most nights are. We drove with the girls looking for early Christmas lights, and there were a few. There is a moon that’s been trying to shine through tonight, and Anna showed us a star.

It is November, and it’s a dark enough month, but, like they say, it could be worse.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dark November

It’s almost the end of November, it’s Friday night, and it’s dark. November has always been to my mind the dark month. It doesn’t make a lot of sense really, since the days continue to get shorter right up until the solstice in December, but it has always seemed darker, so there it is, November, the dark month (even if this year’s November has been mostly bright and mild here).

Years ago, decades actually, I had a very capable Grade 10 student who had the idea that November should be designated as the suicide month; in fact, one of her suggestions, if I remember correctly, was that the small dark town we lived in then should have suicide facilities open in November for interested candidates, just to make it easier for everyone. She didn’t stick with her dark obsession, but the notion of dark November is a powerful one and I can’t ever step into the month without thinking of her.

Robert Creeley put the darkness there, right in the middle of this poem:

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, -- John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

An old friend once suggested what we can “do against/it”. He told us, It’s November, finally you can see! And he was right -- the overpowering green of the leaves is gone, the sun is lower in the sky, there’s no snow to reflect what light there is, and you can see what is there. Yesterday at the Frog Pond we walked around and over still grey boulders, the bright rust of pine needles strewn everywhere, and the even more brilliant green of the damp moss that covered all of the shaded surfaces. When we came out by the pond the water shone silvery grey around reflections of pines and the dark shapes of mallard ducks near the shore. It was November and you could see.

But now it’s dark, (in the US it's Black Friday, which has somehow become more important than the giving of American thanks) and that darkness starts to fall long before the invisible sun drops away. It is the dark days, days of low cloud, drizzle, rain, fog, black tree branches against grey skies. It’s late November. And the days will keep on getting shorter before the earth starts to tilt back towards a brighter time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Feeder birds - the size advantage

Today I was standing at the kitchen sink soaking my fingernail, the one that got blackened when I was laying flagstones in the new walkway, and looking out the window. The seed feeder and suet cage are in the small red pine outside the window, strategically placed so that anyone can watch from the kitchen window. They had both been empty for a while, and it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I got round to pouring the seeds in and putting a suet cake in the cage feeder. While I was working outside, moving soil and bits of sod to fill in next to the walkway and helping Lorraine prune the magnolia, it struck me that birds didn’t seem to be coming to the feeder; that is, the seed level was not dropping the way it did a few weeks ago when a small flock of about two dozen blue jays regularly and noisily visited, along with a red squirrel who hung onto the feeder and the seed bell I had hung, and helped themselves until everything was gone.

So while I soaked my fingernail, I watched the feeders. Within a minute or so, three chickadees showed up and took turns hanging on the suet cage and pecking at the cake or picking seeds carefully from the tray of the feeder and flying off to eat them. They were delicately beautiful, the way chickadees always are, and I was happy just to watch them, since I had to soak my fingernail anyway and their activity was consistently engaging.

Within another minute or so, I saw a flick of movement behind the trunk of the pine. Almost immediately a small woodpecker worked its way around the trunk, looked at the suet cage, and flew over to it. The move was aggressive and it was a bigger bird, so the chickadees quickly flew off to different branches and left the woodpecker to address the suet. I admired its agility, the white stripes on its black wing feathers, and the shape of the white patch on its back. It made me wonder whether this was a downy or a hairy woodpecker, since they are exactly alike except for size and beak shape, and I hadn't seen either kind for a while.

I didn’t have long to wonder about it because a pair of my much larger blue jay buddies showed up in their cocky blue and grey splendour. Their moves were as aggressive as the woodpecker’s had been, and it was gone in an instant, so they proceeded to chase each other away until one decided there were enough scraps on the ground that it wasn’t worth fighting for a spot on the cage. So I watched these two beautiful birds working the territory, but again it didn’t last long.

Another woodpecker, much bigger than the first one (which was, then, clearly a downy), landed on the pine trunk and flew right over to the suet cage. I realized that this one, a hairy woodpecker, was almost exactly the same body size as the jay that was on the other side of the feeder. Here, for the first time, there was no size differential, and surprisingly – for me at least – the two birds shared the little suet cage. Of course I didn’t have the camera close by to catch the two together, but I did catch each of them clinging to the cage.

And that’s really all. There were no bigger birds to chase either of them away from the feeder, and my fingernail had likely soaked long enough, so I dumped the water and took one last look out the window. The blue jays and the hairy woodpecker were gone, but a pretty little chickadee was there pecking carefully at the suet cake.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


It’s November and we are back in Ferguson’s Cove after six days in Ontario visiting the beloved members of our family who live there. Being back means that we can return to the tasks of the house and walkway as well as to doing things with friends here and enjoying (again) what we can see and hear from our house on the edge of Halifax Harbour.

Today the November weather continued mild (once we got past the wet little blizzard just over a week ago) and we decided to work outside. Besides the walkway which is still not finished there was some painting to do as a result of the roof work and deck construction outside our bedroom. So we got stepladders and drop cloth and caulking gun and scraper and set to the task at hand. The wind blew out of the southeast and you could hear the surf breaking on Mauger’s Beach across the harbour. There were lasers sailing through the stiff chop, escorted by a zodiac from the Squadron, and a large tanker that sailed in.

The tanker had an orange hull, pale green superstructure, and the words PENNEY UGLAND painted on its side. It’s a reasonably pretty ship for a tanker, partly because of those striking colours, but also because its lines are attractive. I knew I had seen this ship before and was struck by an image from last spring in Istanbul. We were with our good friends, K&A, and their wonderful boys, walking along the edge of the sahil yolu (seaside road) below Rumeli Hisar, the fort that Sultan Mehmed (the Conqueror) built in 1452. It was a beautiful Sunday morning in May and we were heading for one of the great kahvalti (breakfast/brunch) places along there. On our right as we walked was an empty tanker churning its way up towards the Black Sea, large white bow wave and white spray from the propeller screw, with a Coast Guard tug apparently escorting it on its journey through the Bosphorus.

For me this was a magnificent sight. The tanker, which in my mind’s eye must have said PENNEY UGLAND on its side, towered above us as it headed under the Second Bridge, and I stopped to watch, wishing one of us had a camera. I have been a ship watcher for as long as I can remember (or about 60 years), and I have always been fascinated by the way ships move through the water – if there are ships moving, I need no other entertainment. So I watched this ship and its tug escort and recorded the image only in my mind.

Today while we were painting, the PENNEY UGLAND tanker, with its orange hull and pale green superstructure, made its way into the harbour. I stopped what I was doing to watch it. A little later I got back to work, and much later I got to the computer to check on the ship. I was taken by the thought of this being the same ship and of the contiguity of salt water and waterways that connect every port and allow ships I saw in Istanbul to travel in and out of this harbour. It did turn out, however, that this was the Mattea, jointly owned by Penney from Newfoundland and Ugland from Norway, registered in St. John’s, and built to bring crude oil ashore from the Hibernia field, so it wasn’t this ship I stood watching in the Bosphorus, but probably one of the many tankers registered in Piraeus that take crude from Black Sea ports to European refineries. It is no matter really, it was another ship for me to watch, and a strong enough image to put me back six months ago, walking with some of the best people I know towards a great Turkish kahvalti place with a view of the great city and its magic waterway, the Bosphorus.

It’s November, the dark month (more on this in another post), but today was bright and mild and I watched a ship that reminded me of another time and place. And we still got the painting done!

It wasn't a bad day at all.