Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Carpe Diem

The thaw continues for another day. It is interesting (to me, at least) to watch how the weather moves either across the country or up from the Eastern Seaboard (check Jon Eben’s blog for evidence of the former), and to note, perhaps surprisingly, the ongoing accuracy of Environment Canada’s forecasts. All that aside, however, the glory of the day can still astound. As it does today.

On a clear morning in late January the sun shines straight through the house to catch a corner of the kitchen. And it reflects off the large mirror in the living room to light the beautiful vase Wilma gave us and our little Bedouin couple from the museum shop in Damascus.
It melts the frost off the walkway and the windshield and illuminates the superstructure and bow wave of the Omega Lady Sarah, a tanker involved a year ago in an amazing Caribbean rescue, heading out of the harbour empty, possibly on its way to warm locations like Venezuela.
It is a day to be outside and to seize the warm radiance of the day, like the red squirrel that just ran through the branches of the pines outside my window. Or to stand by our doorway, warmed by the sun, and be thankful for it.
But I also know that winter is far from over and am hoping, if Environment Canada continues to be right, to be skating again in a couple of days and after that, even better, putting that snow shovel to work again (and maybe even getting our skis back out of the shed).

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January Thaw

The sky is clear tonight and the air is still. The moon is high above the house, moving toward full, and the stars are bright. You can stand out on the upper deck and listen to the stream running down the hill, flowing hard from last night’s storm, into the quiet harbour. It is a Nova Scotia January thaw.

Last night’s storm was a good one. The wind blew hard and buffeted the house. Rain poured down through the night and cleared off much of our snow. Then the storm moved on and tonight the air is cooling. And it is still. In the morning the ground will be crisp.

It was afternoon when the sky began to clear after the storm. The sun shone through, and it felt like spring.
So we went to Sailor’s Point (known to others as the Look-off at Herring Cove) to walk on the rocks and look at the sea. No one else was around. The waves roared in and crashed on the granite coastline.
I could never quite catch the biggest plumes of spray with the camera, and it can’t record the thudding and booming as the waves smashed into the bluff below the cairn or the roar of the torrents pouring down off the rocks after the big ones hit.

There was some ice left in a few pools after our storm, but most was gone. And the smashed mussel shells were a reminder of the height of the tidal surge when the last storm went through. There were also chunks of fish floats and uprooted trees above the path and pieces of the embankment torn off and washed up into the bushes, reminders of what a good storm can do.

But these storms pass, bringing January thaws for a day or so, and sometimes the air is quiet behind them. Like tonight.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good Snow

If you want to enlarge the images for a closer look, click on them. Then you can use your back button to return to the page.

Last week when I was driving AZ home, I pointed at the dirty grey snowbanks (or perhaps icebanks) and told him I thought we needed some new snow. He agreed and on Monday we got it. It was the reverse of our usual storms here in Halifax, where we often start with a good fall of small dry snow with wind out of the northeast and end up catching the back side of the system where the winds come round to the southeast, milder air is pulled in, and the snowfall changes to rain. It can be quite a mess and there’s often little chance for skiing. This one started Monday afternoon with nice little cold snowflakes, but it changed quickly to wet snow mixed with rain, so I went to bed without much hope. However, the norwester that often follows these storms blew in and small dry snow kept falling through the night, so that Tuesday morning brought us a lovely little winter wonderland.

A nice thing about not working fulltime is the opportunity to grab a good snowfall when it happens here, because quality snow like this doesn’t often last. So Tuesday morning we got our ski boots out of the basement, found the gaiters, waxed the skis, loaded the car, and headed for Crystal Crescent Beach.

Here’s what I call quality snow. It’s bright and white and cold and dry. It forms little curls and crumbles at the edges of the skis’ tracks. It makes blue shadows and shines with tiny sparkles in the sun. It swishes under your skis and falls in small clumps off your poles behind each push along the trail.

Quality snow shows where a large hare jumped a metre and a half across the trail. It lies on the needles of the balsam firs, just like in the amazing pencil drawing Harry did. It tracks the movements of deer mice from one clump of grass to another. And it falls off the seed clumps in the alder bushes when the chickadees flit and fly through there.

It is the snow that must have made people look for smooth boards to strap onto their feet to glide on. It is the snow your ski grips when you get a good Nordic stride going and the snow you fly through on the small downhill runs, keeping your balance as you remember the feel of step turns. And it is the snow that took us out the trail to the beach where we watched the leftover storm waves crashing in the sunshine on Tuesday.

It has been a remarkably good week for snow for Halifax. More fell on Wednesday, and we had bright sun and blue skies the rest of the week with temperatures nowhere near the melting point. So Thursday and Friday were more great skiing days, and today we went coasting with the girls, sliding down a short steep slope in an old quarry and landing with red cheeks and snow in our faces.

There’s rain forecast for Monday, so all we can count on right now is one more day of good snow and one more day on our skis until the next stretch of great winter weather arrives (we hope!).

Monday, January 18, 2010

New Moon (not the movie!) and Subungual Hematomas

Last night just after sunset I saw the decade’s first new moon among the trees behind our house, a beautiful sharp sliver of silver like a bright fingernail in the dark sky. The rest of the moon’s sphere was barely visible, looking like a soft charcoal ball hanging there, but what I ended up focusing on was that shining fingernail of light. There is always something special about catching the new moon, because it is there for such a short time that first night and because the clear western sky provides some sense of promise, though I’m not always sure what that promise is.

When our granddaughter E., who is just past two and a half, visits, or when we go to her house, she always shows me her fingernails. They are tiny and delicate, and sometimes they have colour on them. Lately it has been pink and green, alternated, though much of that nail polish has disappeared by now, and she did explain to me that one little patch of turquoise is marker. Then she asks to look at mine.

She is particularly interested in my two middle fingers, not because they are the “rude” ones, but because the nail on each has been injured. The injuries are called subungual, because they are under the nail. This does not make us ungulates (from ungula, meaning hoof, claw, talon), like the hoofed intruders mentioned in my last post, but it does suggest a connection between us and them, though we did evolve nails instead of hooves. E. checks them both out carefully and sometimes asks me if I need a band-aid (I don’t). I appreciate her interest because I have been fairly interested in them myself, especially in the one on my right hand.

The left one was pretty straightforward. Somewhere in the process of moving the firewood from the pile in the yard into the shed back in September, it got injured. I don’t even know how or when it happened, I just noticed the purple colour under my nail one day. There was no pain that I was aware of and nothing to do with it I figured, except to wait for it to grow out, which it is doing.

The right one was a more serious or significant event, though it didn’t seem that it should have been. I was working with my brother Ken laying stones in crusher dust to build the walkway. The day was cool and the dust was cold and wet, which may perhaps have softened up my nail for the injury. At any rate I was laying a flat piece of ironstone (I still know which one), not too big and not too heavy, but my finger underneath it, specifically the nail of that finger, was pressed hard onto a lump of gravel hidden under the crusher dust, and it hurt!

If you have had it happen, you will know what I mean. You end up with bleeding under the nail and pressure from the blood there. It took me two days of a seriously throbbing finger to realize that I needed someone to do something about it (read the instructions here), so a nice doctor put a small hole in my nail and pushed out a bunch of blood through that hole.

It was much better, and I believed (naively, I expect) that I might keep the nail. I kept it clean and hoped. A few weeks later I realized my hope was in vain as a small gust of wind caught the nail when I took my hand out of my jacket pocket and blew it right off my finger. I retrieved it, because I thought the little slit in it was pretty neat, but then decided that keeping it might be a little perverse, especially since my body was already hard at work making a new one, so I threw it away.

Now I am waiting and watching as the new nail slowly grows in. The rounded end of my finger reminds me of someone in my class back in junior high who chewed his nails so severely that they bled and only the nail beds seemed to remain. It still feels weird not having a whole nail there, but presumably that will change, and the new nail will grow in as if nothing untoward happened out there in the walkway. If it does, E. will be able to check and see a whole new nail there, perhaps even before she turns three!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wild Life

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that I pay attention to, and sometimes write about, birds that live around us, and it is true that their feathered presence and bright activities have always been engaging to me. In fact, just starting to write this post reminded me of the sharp-shinned hawk I found years ago on the path at the lower end of our property. It was lying there on its back, small talons curled tightly, and no mark on it to show how it had died. I marvelled at its delicate beauty and feathered lightness in my hand.

But this post is not about birds, it’s about mammals, the wild ones that frequent our property. The largest, and in some respects the peskiest, are the white-tailed deer. Before we went away to Istanbul they discovered my vegetable gardens and harvested whatever suited their taste. They browsed the yew just below our deck every winter and severely trimmed the euonymus by the back door. They are fond of tulips and the only way to grow them here is to put little cages over the bulbs in the early spring to keep their leaves from being chewed off by white-tailed grazers. Our neighbours, S&S, erected an eight-foot fence around their vegetable garden, but their shrubs and bushes are still vulnerable in winter when the deer stroll by, which they do with relative impunity.

I last saw a deer here a couple of weeks ago when I took Dewi, who was here for a sleepover, out the lane for his evening walk. While he was sniffing dead goldenrod and clumps of snow I looked back toward the house and saw the elegant shape of a large doe stepping across the driveway and heading through the path to our neighbours'. And yesterday morning, when I checked the feeder in the magnolia bush, I saw that it was pretty much empty and the hoofprints in the snow told me that one of our friendly deer had figured out how to bump the seeds out of it and munch them on the ground.
Another feeder visitor is a quick little red squirrel. It is quite different, I think, from the large grey characters that Jon Eben contends with in St. Catharines with their languid city ways that border on domesticity and their skill at getting past the most creative obstacles to clean out the bird feeders. My red squirrel is a wild creature, more modest in appetite, with stashes of spruce cones under the edges of granite boulders and in tree root crevices, and I have no objection to its helping itself to some seeds now and again. It scolds us from bare branches, moves with a rust-coloured and fluid grace up and over and around our rocks and trees, and hangs from the suet cage while it nibbles its snacks.

There are snowshoe hares as well, though I more often see their tracks than their beings. Early last winter I watched one make its way down the slope next to the house, crouching under our pine trees, probably feeding, though they usually eat around dawn and dusk. What struck me then was the mottling of its coat, the white beginning to predominate, but the grey-brown still very much there as the season changed from fall to winter. Driving to the airport very early on the morning of the 3rd we saw a pure white one just beyond our road, perfectly matching the snow that had fallen that night. It’s an amazing feat, I think, this changing of colour to match the season, and I still puzzle about how such a feature could have evolved (though I guess without it I’d have no snowshoe hares to look at).

Of course there are also chipmunks, likely hibernating now, raccoons, though they are less in evidence since I’ve put a stronger bungee cord on the green bin, and deer mice, whose tracks I see in the snow and keep hoping they will stay outside the house since I don’t love catching them in traps. I know that there are foxes around, and others talk of coyotes, but I haven’t seen either yet, though I would love to. I’ll keep watching, however, and I’ll keep you posted – you can count on it!

Bright Days of Winter

Today, Wednesday, is another grey winter day here in Nova Scotia, though there are faint bits of blue showing to the north (the way two of my corner windows face), and it is cold the way winter days can be cold here, minus eight and damp, with a light wind out of the northwest. 2010 has been predominantly grey here and very stable after the wet snow and high winds that tore through here on the 2nd, which means that we haven’t had the conditions we need for either skating on the ponds or cross country skiing through the trails.

However, Monday of this week was a bright day, the very first clear day of 2010, the first clear day, in fact, of this new decade. And it was a special morning, clear sky out at the horizon, and a winter sun that rose out of the sea. It was cold, cold enough to produce seasmoke, which was moving out the harbour with the frigid north wind pushing it, but it was warm enough in the house with a significant solar gain as the sun got higher and lit our living room.

Winter here does get some people down, understandably, and I thought of things I don’t like about winter as we drove along Oxford Street yesterday past the dirty banks of hardened snow and ice, the ridges you have to climb over whenever you park on the street downtown, scatters of salt on the whitened sidewalks, and grey ice on park trails. There can be a grim tightness about winter and the sense that you have to work all the time against its grip, and I do understand what moves our friends to seek refuge in Florida or Mexico, to find an easier time through the next couple of months. However, there are also bright days, like Monday and like yesterday.

It is those bright days that I cherish in winter, even if the leaves of the rhodendron thermometer are pointing straight down. They are days where the sun casts blue shadows in the snow, days where sheltered corners and doorways are warmed, days where you can breathe in the crisp and clean brightness of winter air. And when the clouds begin to thin a little and patches of blue start to show through, there is a lightening of the spirit, and the promise that the days are getting longer, even if the cold is stronger. It is not time yet to think of spring, but it is time to celebrate the brightness of winter with its own austere beauty, and to hope for good snow or good ice to be able to get out and really enjoy it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The image of the day

Although I use images – many, if not most, of them my own – in this blog, it is not intended to be a photo gallery. I write these posts because I love to write and love what you can do in and with language, but I also love to be able to complement the words with some images. Sometimes those images are utterly jewel-like on the screen, and I do always hope that both word and image support and enhance each other in these posts.

Today I was in a situation where I wished I had a camera. The little digital was sitting on the table in the entry room but its case wasn’t there. I meant to get it but somehow we left without it, although Lorraine did bring her Leica, picked up a new battery for it, and loaded it with black and white film. She needed some negatives for her class and we were on a mission, though all I had for my part were my eyes, my mind’s eye, and the words I might use to recreate the images, if there were any to recreate.

The day wasn’t promising, with periodic drizzle, some fog, and plenty of flat light, not at all propitious for good negatives. However, we had some errands to do, one of which was on Cole Harbour Road, so we decided to give that area a try and headed out past Imperoyal and the Autoport and through Eastern Passage. Lorraine wondered about Devil’s Island so we drove out to Hartlen’s Point where the road ends.

Something I have loved ever since Lorraine began photographing is going on one of our missions where she has an image or images in mind. You can never predict what will happen, but you will always end up somewhere interesting where all you need to do is look at what is there. So we walked out the little road toward the point under a grey cover of cloud.

Sometimes toward sunrise and toward sunset there is clearing in the sky. I am not sure why this happens – we agreed that there may be some meteorological explanation for it – but it does often enough. I notice it some mornings when I wake early to a clear sky and think about sun pouring in our windows, only to see clouds or fog gathering as the day breaks. And in the evening the cloud sometimes lifts, just as it used to do in Vancouver winters, and the horizontal sun shines across wherever we are and illuminates the end of the day.

The explanation, if there is one, is much less important than the thing itself, and today it happened. I was looking at the lighthouse and house on Devil’s Island and at Chebucto Head way across the harbour and watching the waves climbing and curling and crashing on the shoal water when the clouds did seem to lift and the late sun poured through the opening. Suddenly everything was illuminated. The squat lighthouse became a sharp dark shape against a golden sky. The clouds around the sun and the sky behind them turned gold. The westerly wind picked up the curving tops of the waves and blew the spray back, also gold. I held in my hand some tiny purple sea growths attached to small golden rocks. And Lorraine stood in the magic light, camera to her eye, photographing.

You need to be there. The camera, for all its magic, captures only a little of the huge beauty that surrounds us at a time like that, not just the golden sights but the sound of the waves breaking and the salt sea smell. So you do need to be there and hold in your mind’s eye the glory of such a day’s ending. We were there and it was worth the trip.

And we did get the negatives, which, once they are processed, will be another thing. As for me, I don’t have a single image for you of the day that was. You’ll just have to use your imagination.

Friday, January 1, 2010

My 60th Post

I started Field Days: A Miscellany on my last birthday (or, I might prefer to say, my most recent, since I have no plans for ending this birthday thing), March 2, 2009, and have now completed 59 posts. You would probably agree with me that some of them are more interesting or compelling, or better written, than others, and that there is a fair variety of content (though many do seem to focus – perhaps too much – on the weather or what I’ve noticed in our little neighbourhood). Writing this one, the 60th, on the last day of 2009, carries some symbolic significance for me, I suppose. I don’t really want a summing up of 2009, nor do I want to speculate on the year and decade to come, which is what pundits and commentators do, but I do want to post something in honour of the occasion.

Here are some things I thought of writing about:

Peggy’s Cove on the 27th was a great grey day. The wind was out of the southeast and rain was coming, but the rocks were beautiful in that soft light and there were sheltered places to explore. The restaurant was open, with good fish hash and homemade beans, but the lighthouse was still locked. That didn’t stop A. from looking for higher rocks to climb on, and we did our share of happy rambling and scrambling, though I couldn’t find any crabs under the seaweed this time (the water was too cold for much looking!).

The 28th was a warm beneficence of a day, bright sun and light wind. The bulk of the storm had passed offshore and the swells coming in the harbour were beautiful. We walked out the trail at Sailor’s Point looking at the ocean, which was a glacial green with veins of white foam all along the shore. Rafts of eider ducks were floating just outside the roughest water. We spent a long time just sitting on the sloping granite out by the cairn, watching and listening. The large waves came in their usual intervals and thudded on the steep headland sending huge white plumes into the air.

And I thought of writing about a great lobster and shrimp strada one of my brothers made; about standing out in the wind chill with another brother after the sauna and watching the steam pluming from our bodies (unfortunately no snow to roll in); about mulled wine and cider and sweetmeats and family; about walking from Duncan’s Cove around to Ketch Harbour over the headlands and barrens, checking out the seals basking on the rocks, and looking for elves’ caves in the enchanted forest; about a night walk under the blue moon on a cold New Year’s Eve; about seeing the fireworks in the distance from way in the harbour and across at Eastern Passage and welcoming the new decade; and about just being too busy to find time to finish this gesture toward a blog post until now, morning, on a new day in a new year and a new decade, still hoping that we can all find ways to make our world better this year, even just a little.

So happy 60th blog post, and Happy New Year to you from me!