Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Bird Count, 2010

This morning at first light I went outside for firewood and heard the bell buoy in the harbour clang.  The swells must have been moving into the harbour ahead of tonight’s storm, which has rainfall and storm surge warnings posted, but the air was still, just as it was yesterday, the day of this year’s Nova Scotia bird count.

Yesterday was my first official participation in the count, something my older brother had suggested I might do when I talked to him on Friday night.  He is my one older brother (the other five are younger) and he has influenced my life in a number of ways besides getting me involved in the bird count. 

He is a statistician, still active in it even though he is retired from active teaching, which of course is a useful skill in the Bird Society, but he started out in university as a Math and Science student.  My highest marks in Provincials (my high official high school leaving grades) were in Geometry and Physics, and I think I won school prizes in both; my lowest by quite a long shot was English.  However, I had watched my brother’s study habits during his first couple of years as a university student and knew I would (or could) never work as hard as that, so I passed on Math and studied English instead.

I have been watching birds since I was about ten, when our dad pointed out to me an osprey hovering over the lagoon at North-side East Bay in Cape Breton.  I watched it dive straight into the water, struggle upwards with a fish in its talons, get enough height to shake the water out of its feathers, swoop up a little higher to shake again, and then fly away to its nest or a high perch to either eat the prey or feed its young.  After that I began to notice the eagles that circled over the big lake when my next younger brother and I would venture out there in the rowboat, and I’ve loved watching birds of all sizes and colours ever since. 

I think my older brother became a bird watcher later than I did because when we were talking about an eagle I had seen floating up the Shubenacadie River on a small ice floe, he didn’t remember the Bras d’Or Lakes eagles and ospreys I used to watch.  However, as a mathematics and statistics person, he became a much more careful and scientific watcher than I ever was, and it was he who often educated me about specific birds and their habits and songs.

On Saturday, the day before the count, Lorraine and I watched chickadees and juncos and jays on and under the feeder in the magnolia bush pecking at seeds and sometimes squabbling over them.  From where she sat she was able to see a male cardinal carefully approaching the feeding area under the bush (the jays are good at knocking seeds out of the feeder every time I fill it).  It was a great moment for me because I hadn’t seen a cardinal in the neighbourhood for almost a year, and I wished that I could do the count that day, as I could have included the cardinal, a couple of blue jays, and a pale goldfinch in its winter plumage.

We weren’t home much yesterday, but in the morning I refilled the feeders and in the afternoon I had a chance to watch for a while.  I saw my little crew of juncos working the territory accompanied by a couple of white-throated sparrows who are also regulars.  My happy handful of chickadees made a busy visit, but no goldfinch or blue jay to be seen, at least by me.  I was feeling tempted to bend the rules and report Saturday’s cardinal, but decided I couldn’t do it – something of that need for statistical accuracy kept me honest.

So I was delighted when the wary cardinal showed up and hopped across the snowy lawn for a quick feed and I added him to my brief list.  When I reported my stats to my brother last night, he told me that his group had observed thirty-eight species out at Cole Harbour, so I was happy for him, but I was also glad to have my numbers included in the total.   

The numbers may not have told anything of my delight at watching the birds, the poetry of their quick presences, but they did put our house and local birds into the record books for the 2010 bird count:

Dark-eyed junco                    10
White-throated sparrow       4
Black-capped chickadee        4
Northern cardinal (male)      1

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This post is about driving, specifically about driving our Subaru, something I have been doing quite a bit of lately. Most of the trips are in and out of the city, winding up and down the hills on Purcell’s Cove Road and figuring out the best route to take once I get into town, or deciding how to get out of town and then navigating Purcell’s Cove Road on the way home.  What I love the most about it is the opportunity for a kind of seamless smoothness in the journey.

When I used to commute from here to Uniacke District School, which I did for seven years, I wasn’t particularly aware of that aesthetic in my travels.  For one thing I was either heading to school, getting ready in my mind for what the day might bring, or I was heading home, processing the events of the day and preparing to be clear of them in order to focus on supper instead.  For another, I always had CBC Radio going so it was Information Morning one way and Mainstreet the other, and the heavy traffic was always going in the opposite direction so I didn’t have much to contend with.  As a result, I didn’t really think about smoothness in the drive, I just drove.

When we first moved to Istanbul and travelled during our orientation period on school service buses, I was happy to just watch out the window, but I was also getting itchy to drive.  Part of it was the way others talked about the difficulties of driving there, and part of it was just watching the way the traffic moved, or sometimes didn’t.  Soon enough we got a car, and soon enough we were both driving, heading out from campus onto the TEM or down to the D100 or the sahil yolu (seaside road).  It was a challenge, and you quickly learned to check your mirrors and every angle through your windows because the drivers on the TEM were often fairly fast (like coming up behind you at about 160 and flashing their lights at you as you are passing a long truck and can’t easily get out of the way), fairly aggressive (like riding your bumper so close at 120 that you can’t even see their lights in your rear view), and fairly daring (like using every lane and the paved shoulder to weave their way through traffic at 140).  It was a challenge, but if you liked driving (as we do), it was worth engaging in.

Lorraine noted early on that the key was fluidity, keeping the flow going; as she put it, If you can go, you must.  There was little room for hesitation, and too much politeness (You go.  No, you go.) just interfered with that necessary flow.  So we got into the flow, with some trepidation at first, and started to develop a feel for driving in Istanbul (driving in the rest of Turkiye is a piece of cake by comparison) and the kind of confidence you need to keep going with the flow and keep the flow going.

Now we are back in Nova Scotia where there are few challenges when we set out for the city or its environs, and in the absence of a challenge you need to develop an aesthetic, which is the seamless smoothness I have mentioned.  It’s important to me to be driving a standard, to make my shifts at the right moment so that they are almost imperceptible, to use my brakes as little as possible, to change lanes strategically and elegantly, to get from A to B as smoothly and efficiently as possible, and to pay attention to the sometimes reckless behavior of Halifax pedestrians (in Istanbul they knew how to cross roads without interfering substantially with the flow).

There is, with the exception of pedestrian unpredictability and the inconsiderate actions of some drivers, the relaxation of driving, something that comes with the smoothness of flow and is connected with those right brain activities it requires: scanning the road, anticipating the moves ahead of you, watching the seconds count down on the Walk/Don’t Walk signs, and moving the car through it all like a larger body you inhabit to the place you are heading for.   

If you are, like me, a language person, these periods you spend in the other side of your brain when you are driving can be both peaceful and productive, as thoughts and ideas find space to emerge and blossom, except of course when you come up behind a Pontiac Vibe that is going too slowly or a Mercedes that keeps braking for no conceivable reason.  My road rage in these cases is limited to mild expletives addressed to the car itself, and most of the time I enjoy the meditative calm of a good drive.

I know something of the environmental costs of driving and try to minimize them, but because of where we live and where we sometimes need to go, those costs are sometimes unavoidable.  Given that, I believe it is important, and in fact something I do take pleasure in, to drive well.  You can’t tell, I’m sure, if you see me driving that I am cultivating an aesthetic, but if you notice me coming down the steep hill into the Cove and rounding the corner by Kiley’s at the bottom without needing to brake, you should know that I am feeling a small sense of satisfaction. 

 It’s the satisfaction that comes from being one with the Subaru and moving through it all smoothly and well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

December 10

It’s been a cold clear winter day today, the 10th day of December, with its own kind of beauty.  There’s a dryness to the air, and the sun never gets very high in the sky, or very warm, as we approach the solstice and the official beginning of the next season, namely winter.  It was nice to be out in today’s air, to feel the lawn frozen hard and to understand that the bright green of the grass, which a couple of days ago was like what you see in Vancouver when you make a snowman from the good thick wet snow they sometimes get and see the brilliant lawn underneath, will fade to straw and dun and stay locked in that winter hardness for a few months.

When the sun dropped and the daylight dropped (as it does), I came inside because I wanted to vacuum around the entry and in front of the woodstove.  It was getting darker in the house, not ideal for vacuuming, but I persevered, completing the entry room, kitchen, and living room, not just the area by the woodstove, but the whole of our living room carpet.

And that’s what this post is really about, not working outside or early December sun or the change in the colour and texture of the grass or vacuuming under low light conditions, but the carpet.

In the summer the carpet is rolled up, put away, and replaced with jute mats so that the high bright sun doesn’t have a chance to fade it.  So every fall when we bring the carpet down and unroll it again we are consistently taken by its beauty.

We were first taken by the beauty of this carpet the first time we saw it.  We had looked at lots of carpets and kilims after we first moved to Istanbul and resolved at the time that we wouldn’t buy anything for at least a year because there were so many to see and so much learn about them.  Finally we did buy a lovely Armenian carpet that Lorraine found at Adnan & Hasan in Kapalı Çarşı (aka Grand Bazaar) and that we agreed would work well in our living room once we returned to Nova Scotia and our house.  But it wasn’t the one we ended up bringing home.

We first saw this carpet in the showroom at the Bella Hotel in Selçuk.  Nazmi told us that it had come from his village near Kayseri from a young couple who had inherited it from their aunt and wanted something more contemporary.  We were immediately taken by the unusual soft and subtle green of its background colour, the touches of rust and blue, the wonderful intricacy of the centre medallion and flowers in the border, the faint smell of wood smoke it carried, and all the touches of the hands that had made it and given it such a happy character. 

Words can’t capture the nature of this carpet – you just need to be with it, look at it for a while, and keep discovering all the subtle and wonderful new aspects and details in it.  Unfortunately I can’t supply a daylight image of it until tomorrow, so the image you have at the head of this post shows it being washed on our deck the way we watched the young guy in the courtyard of the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus do it, with squeegee, soap, and a hose. 

It’s wet and soapy in the image but it’s still beautiful and continues to give us pleasure every time we see it or walk on it or even just vacuum it.