Friday, February 27, 2015

Sunny, Sunny Days!

The break from snow is giving me a chance to carve a nice snowshoe trail through the field and woodlot. Abby and I both prefer to be moving, not lying around the house -- unless it's bedtime and one of us has a book. But when that bright, cold sun is shining, nothing gets the blood flowing like fresh air and deep snow!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Evening Sky

This was an "Extreme Cold" evening sky. It wasn't extremely cold at sunset but it was coming. My photographs can't grasp the frigidness of the colour, the dry cold of the air, the slow change of the temperature but it was there. I could see it in the sky.
If you can't see the sky, how do you stay connected to the world? How do you smell the rain coming or see the snow forming? How do you remember that you are just a small cluster of cells inside an unlimited universe? How do you remember that what you do with water, with trees, with garbage affects everyone else around the world?
If you can't see the sky, what reminds you that we all live under the same dome?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bang On

There's an article in today's Halifax paper about things that go bang in the night. Apparently, city people don't know what causes those bangs.
Someone actually thought a plane had a crashed. Some believed the sound was an explosion. Others woke up thinking their roofs were collapsing.
Now, being a city person myself, I don't like to denigrate those folk too much but I've lived in the country long enough to pick up a little knowledge; mostly from posing endless questions to the Nova Scotia country boy, questions like, "What the hell was that?"
Which is exactly what those city folk were asking Tuesday night.
As if they've never experienced a cold snap before. Are they new to Halifax? New to Nova Scotia? New to Canada? Where cold happens. Obviously they weren't around last winter because the exact same thing happened last year during a cold snap. Things when bang in the night.
There are bangs called "frost quakes" that come from the ground, I understand, and are seismic; they will be heard by a whole bunch of people but an expert at the Geological Society says no seismic activity was registered in Halifax. In all likelihood, because we had them, too, way out here in Cumberland County, these bangs -- the ones we hear when we're sitting in the living room or lying in bed -- came from a house's building materials contracting in the cold.
Cold, people. It happens. Every year. We went from reasonably cold temperatures to bloody freakin' freezing temperatures overnight. Bang! We object and our houses and decks object. It's disconcerting, sure, but no reason to call the police (as one Halifax resident did).
So all I can say about an almost-half page article in the newspaper, in which seven people were interviewed about saying "What the hell was that?", is that this is another example of what happens when you live in a city surrounded by concrete and asphalt, and building after building after building. Or more specifically, when you don't live in Nature surrounded by fields and woods and rivers. You lose touch, you forget who is truly in charge, you think food is grown at the grocery store. Not recognizing those bangs, not coping with snow and ice, not cleaning your roof off before rain and freeze arrive has to be a symptom of the disconnect that happens when you don't live in the country.
Although I have to say, the answers people came up with for "What the hell was that?" were pretty interesting but also a reflection of living in the city. One man thought it was a plane exploding, another man said it sounded like the Halifax Explosion (a truly unique local reaction), while others thought it was someone breaking into their house.
In the country, we don't get as excited as that. We're rather "Ockham's Razor" that way: The simplest answer is usually the correct one. A deck contracting, a flue fire, a bear in the garbage -- all simple things that go bang in the night.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Red Bar of Doom

While walking to Jane's for lunch an hour ago, I thought how lovely the temperature is today. And now it is flurrying heavily; not blindingly, just heavily.
"If it could stay this temperature for the rest of the season, it would make everyone so much happier," I said to myself.
But no, the red bar of doom has returned to the weather page but instead of a blizzard, it's announcing frigid windchills. Nothing says leave the extra Newfoundland wool blanket on the bed like an Extreme Cold Warning.
I think we'd cope with winter better if it wasn't These fluctuations are disconcerting, I think. Jane has always said, "If it would in cold at about minus 12, minus 15 and stay there all winter, it would be much easier to deal with."
I suppose the bright spot is what my husband pointed out this morning: "It's almost the end of February. This might be the last cold snap of winter."
Can I have an Amen to that?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Not So Bad

My grandmother used to say (apparently) that "You get used to hanging if you hang long enough."
She'd likely be saying that these days when it comes to the snow we've been getting.There is nothing we can do about the snowstorms buggering up church and 4H meetings and trips to the city. We are so lucky we didn't stay overnight in Moncton when we went to the Christina Martin concert on Thursday evening, otherwise, we would have been hanging out with her and the band at the Pizza Delight in Sackville after the TransCanada Highway through the Tantramar Marsh was closed due to high winds and blowing snow.
It was bad enough here. We know have more snow in our backyard than we did after last weekend's blizzard. Even with today's rain, we'll be snowshoeing to the chicken coop until the spring thaws kicks in. You can't walk easily with a bucket full of warm water when you've sunk up to your knees in snow.
But what can you do? Try standing outside in a snowstorm and see if you can hold it off! There's no point complaining and I'm certainly grateful to live in Cumberland County, where we're getting snow, instead of along the Atlantic coast where rain and ice are making lives miserable.
When that Red Bar of Doom shows up on the Environment Canada website for the local area, there is nothing we can do but lay our heads on the table, just for a moment, then go to the laundry room and fill up those buckets with water.

Friday, February 20, 2015


The space around my desk is very, very cluttered right now. Every so often, I do a cull, peeling pieces of paper off the wall and moving ornaments onto a shelf. But at the moment, for the next two months, really, I'm deep into writing projects, diverse projects, important projects, and there's no time for tidying. The mess will pile up and it, too, shall be a symbol of creativity, productivity and procrastination time spent on Facebook and Twitter.
The house used to be cleaner and the cookie tin fuller before I discovered social media. Before I became determined to publish books come hell or high water (which may happen this spring with all the snow we are receiving).
But I do take time to arrange the appropriate talismans for the work at hand. In the current arrangement, the elephant reminds me to take it one day, one project, one chapter at a time; the dragonfly mug reminds me that change and transformation are good things; and the beeswax candle cleanses the air in my office, allowing me to work longer.
As if the snow drifts and blowing snow weren't encouragement enough to stay inside and write.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Conversation With...Mallory Rushton

First published in The Oxford Journal newspaper on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Of all the memories 18-year-old Mallory Rushton will pack up and bring home when she graduates from an American prep school this spring, the rink at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire will be a special one.
Not just because it’s the rink where she’s spent much of the last four years honing her hockey skills but also because the unique space is a reminder of how those skills developed: on her neighbours’ frozen pond next to her home in Brookdale, outside Amherst.
“It’s an indoor rink but the ends are off it,” Mallory explains about her school’s arena. “When I’m shooting on net, I can see the woods and the snow.”

But as you read this, Mallory isn’t thinking about graduation or the rink or how the homework is piling up as she misses a week of school. As a senior member of Team Nova Scotia, she’s at the Canada Games in Prince George, British Columbia. 
She was 13 years old when she first made Team Nova Scotia.
“And I’ve made it every year since then,” Mallory explains. “The Canada Games happen every four years and my first year playing was a Canada Games year when it was hosted in Halifax in 2011. I was too young to play then so I’m the oldest on the team this year.”
Canada is the only country in the world that offers this calibre of competition for the 18-and-under age group. Mallory’s entire hockey experience to date – her natural ability on skates, her play with the boys’ teams, her decision to attend boarding school – have prepared her well for this one-in-a-lifetime event.
 “My maturity definitely improved by going away to school,” she says. “I’m on the ice every day at school. I practice every day and we have games three or four times a week. At our school, it’s our rink; we don’t rent it out so I can go up and shoot around whenever I want. I think that’s when you get better, when you don’t have anyone watching you and there is no pressure on you. That’s where I’ve improved the most, playing around with my friends or pick-up hockey just for fun.”
This is a young woman who wanted to play hockey before she could skate. After watching her older brother at the rink, she told her parents she wanted to play and her father taught her to skate. She was four years old.
“She learned to skate just like that,” Mallory’s mother, Paula Rogers, says with a snap of her fingers. “She instantly had the knack.”
Mallory credits that natural talent for allowing her to not merely hold her own but to excel in the boys’ leagues in which she played. 
“As I got older and more competitive, there were fewer girls playing and usually I was the only girl on the team,” Mallory remembers of her early years playing hockey in Amherst. “It was tough being alone in my own dressing room but it was also helpful because it helped me get focused for the game. I would go in the team dressing room before the game and I always felt like the boys treated me like a boy. I have an older brother so I knew what it was like to be around boys. I fit in fine.”
With two children playing hockey, it often was Mallory and her mother going to practices and games together. That forged a strong bond between mother and daughter. Paula is very proud of her daughter’s accomplishments.
 “One of the seasons when she played with boys, she was the only girl in the league and got top defenseman which was pretty phenomenal,” she says.
Motivated by her own high expectations for her play, Mallory knew at the age of 11 that she needed to attend a private boarding school in order to be the best player she could be. Attending the [Atlantic Hockey] Showcase on PEI allowed her to demonstrate her skills in front of private school scouts.
“Mallory went to Showcase then schools started contacting us,” Paula says. “So you think, ‘Okay, Mallory has something special here’, when you have private schools calling you on the phone and sending you emails.”
Even though she’d always wanted to go away, Mallory admits it was still a tough decision to make at 15 (talking about it still brings tears to her mother’s eyes) but it was worth it, not only for her hockey but for her academics. 
“I learned a lot more than I would have learned at home,” she says. “I couldn’t ask my parents to do things for me so I had to do them on my own. You have to be able to take care of yourself in order to live there. And I got good experiences because I got to take different classes than I would have taken in Amherst and the class sizes were about 7 to 12 students,” says Mallory, adding that the New Hampton School puts academics ahead of sports.
“You have to do well and you have to like school because the teachers really focus on you. You have to meet a certain average in order to play and you can’t miss class in order to play. You first priority is school and your teachers and coaches know that.”
Mallory received a scholarship to offset the cost of full tuition but it was still a financial commitment for her parents. Mallory’s mother says sending her daughter away to school in the States was worth every penny. 
“She’s grown by leaps and bounds. She’s well-educated and well-spoken,” Paula says. “What we’ve paid is a small amount compared to what Mallory got out of her experience.”
And now the hockey part of that experience is culminating in the biggest tournament of her young life.
At five feet, 120 pounds, Mallory is not a big player (which explains in part why she’s making plans to attend university instead of pursuing an Olympic dream) but opponents underestimate her at their peril. 
“I hold my own because of my strength on my skates,” she says. “I’ve always been a good skater so people don’t push me off the puck easily because I have good balance.”
But she’s facing some pretty big competition. 
“We’re a small province, playing against Ontario and Alberta and BC,” explains Mallory. “Those teams are always the best. They have the most people to choose from in their provinces so it will be interesting to see how we do against the bigger teams. I think we’ll do really well.”
Mallory’s confidence comes from knowing her team so well. 
“We may not bring as much talent and skill as them but we work hard every shift and we bump and grind until we get it done,” she says of Team Nova Scotia. “We’ll do well if we consistently work hard.”
With Mallory in a leadership role now with the team, the other provinces will soon learn that a small province, and a small player, bring a really big heart to the ice. 

Dave, the Snowblower God

There is no better neighbour than the one who arrives unexpectedly with a tractor and a giant snowblower, who anticipates the needs of a friend, who just drives in, blasts the snow and drives out again, like the lone winter cowboy covered in the white dust of his trails, asking for nothing in return but a warm cup of coffee a little later on when he's running low on fuel and patience for a very wintery month.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Storm Reminds Us Of What We've Forgotten

While the snow piled up, we kept adding layers.
We were only partially prepared for this massive snowstorm. Normally, I fill up lots of pots and buckets and water bottles, knowing we need 72-hours' worth of water for not just the humans but four pets and the chickens, too. Normally, I bake cookies and put a soup together. Normally, I get out blankets and candles.
However, despite Frankie MacDonald shouting to us to "be prepared for a massive blizzard to hit Nova Scotia", I just didn't do all that. Most of the news on Saturday was about the foiled killing spree planned for Halifax; there wasn't the usual SNOWPOCALYPSE stories that galvinate us, even as we roll our eyes. So we didn't really put much effort into getting ready. We got cocky this time; all the other storms, for which we've been prepared, there was no power outage. So on Sunday, we watched TV and we read and we looked at the snow. I took pictures of it building up on the front deck.
Part of the reason for my lack of preparedness is this book proposal I'm working on. It's going so well that my attention and energy was focused on that, not on survival.
Until the power went out -- just like that, without a warning flicker -- Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.
"NO!" I hollered from my office. "I'm not ready yet!"
And I actually meant I wasn't ready to stop working.
This is why writers need people to take care of them when they're engrossed in a project. If my husband wasn't cleaning the house and my mother cooking the meals, I'd starve to death as the dust bunnies smothered me.
Because of the propane stove, I was able to make minestrone soup on Sunday morning and it was an interesting reminder of how easy our modern life is for us. When the power is out, when you can't turn on a tap for water, when you want to reuse as many utensils and pans as possible, everything takes a little longer. There is part of me that appreciates a power outage in the middle of winter because it forces me to acknowledge how little work my life is now. Even making a cup of tea is done by flicking a switch on the base of the kettle; filling the kettle with bottles of water then lighting the element manually took just a few more steps, and a lot longer to boil, than it does now. As we sat around in the living room on Sunday night, waiting for the power to come back on, wearing toques and fleece sweaters, long-underwear and gloves, it reminded me that families did this for generations and not so many generations ago. Long, dark winter nights when you might as well climb into bed and go to sleep because it was warmer under the wool blankets.
It also reminded me that it's time to invest in a wood-burning fireplace insert! The gravity feed from the furnace wasn't heating the living room much but, ironically, the gravity feed was taking the heat straight up to my office.
When the power came back on at 2 am, I happened to be awake. The dining room light was on so it was the glow my husband saw when I woke him. He fixed the fire in the furnace and came back to bed. As I lay there, I wondered why it seemed so light outside then I realized that when the power had gone out, my office light had been on. When I slipped past the blanket keeping the heat inside that upstairs room, it was warm and bright. I could have sat down and turned the computer on and picked up right from where I left off.
Writing about the joys and perils of country living.

My candle creation - using mistakenly purchased non-clumping cat litter -put a big glow on which sort of redeemed my failure to provide storm cookies.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Is This Still A Nor'Easter?

I guess we should have shovelled off the front deck after all those other storms. Every time I go downstairs (snow days make me very productive on the writing projects), this snowdrift is a little higher.

The chickens still need to be checked on and since this my day for doing chores, I'm going to take my friend Susie's advice and wrap a rope around to tie to the back deck. One of those gusts could take me and the water bucket all the way to Oxford!

A friend in Pictou County just inquired on Facebook if this storm had a name yet. I think "White Arthur" works for me. Or rather, White Art by the way it look whenever I look out the windows.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Modern Pioneer Woman

When we went to bed last night, my husband said, "Don't make a fire in the morning, I want to take out some ashes. Wake me up before you leave."
I was heading out to have blood work done at seven o'clock but at 6:15, he was deeply asleep so I let him be. I covered the dogs with a blanket, made a travel mug of tea for my drive back from the hospital and left.
Dwayne wasn't up when I got home and Mum was just coming downstairs for breakfast, so I made coffee and fed the dogs. When I realized my nose was cold, I said to my mother, "Dwayne wanted to take ashes out before making a fire this morning but he's sound asleep and I hate to wake him if he had a bad night because of pain."
"Can't we take the ashes out?" she asked.
Well, holy crap.
In the nearly eight years I've lived here, I've never cleaned out the wood furnace; it was always something Dwayne did. Thanks to my dad, I make a mean fire and I keep it going throughout the day but maintenance is not my job.
Funny thing is taking out the ashes was my job as a child. The Franklin wood stove at our first cottage on Rice Lake and later the big stone fireplace at the cottage on Weller's Bay needed to cleaned out frequently and because I was a kid, my father asked me to do it. I don't remember what I put the ashes in or what Dad did with them.

"I don't see any reason why not," I said to Mum 38 years later. "We'll be like pioneer women doing this chore."
I drank another cup of coffee and checked Facebook and Mum went upstairs to get dressed and then it occurred to me: If you're going to take ashes out of a furnace, you actually have to go and do it. And it certainly doesn't take two people.
There were enough glowing orange coals left from which to start a roaring fire and by the time Dwayne got up, the coffee was gone and the house was warm.

Thursday, February 12, 2015


With two outdoor cats, my mother's balcony is the only safe place for the birds to feed. She provides food for them year-round, offering the seed up on a pizza tray since her son-in-law complained about the seeds clogging up, and rotting in, the gaps between the boards. 
In the winter, the birds need more seed but no tray. They must appreciate her daily efforts to keep them supplied with food. Every so often, we hear a squawk from Mum's room and know a couple of starlings have landed or worse, a huge pigeon.
"It's like a jumbo 747 landing in the middle of everything," she says.
I miss feeding the birds. Before the stray cat Fern arrived in December of 2011, we were a bird sanctuary. We counted 31 different species in 2010, including pine grosbeaks. We had half a dozen feeders spread around the property. My husband called bird seed his new addiction.
But when you look outside and see the black-and-white cat sitting in the wooden tray feeder out front, you kind of lose your appetite for feeding the birds.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Heart of A Baby Reveals the Heart of a Community

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 11, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

This is the week when hearts are everywhere. For Heather Jacklin, they are simply a reminder of the one heart that matters most.
Heather sits in the platform rocker in the Pugwash Road home in south Oxford she shares with husband Matt and their four children. Baby William naps in her arms as she recalls the prenatal check-up that changed her pregnancy.
“Everything was fine until the 20-week ultrasound. That’s when they detected that the left side of William’s heart looked significantly smaller than the right,” she says. 
A registered nurse, Heather was quick to notice the change in the ultrasound technician’s behaviour.
“He was lingering around and looking. Because I work in the health care field, I know when you don’t want to say anything obvious. When the tech said to the maternal fetal medicine doctor about taking a look at the structure, I knew something was off.”
Another ultrasound at 28 weeks confirmed the issue with the left ventricle and revealed two other issues.
William, in utero, also had a coarctation (a kink) in his aorta and a hypoplastic aortic arch, meaning the entire artery was smaller than normal. 
“Instantly everything I know about the heart consumed me,” Heather says.
The heart in question was no bigger than a grape, the two major arteries smaller than strands of hair. 
At the same time, another heart was revealing itself: The heart of a community.
Because of her baby bump, Heather says she was “a walking billboard” and questions about her pregnancy were difficult to answer. 
“Before the baby was born, my sister started a Facebook page and it helped,” she says. “I was worried because I like to keep things private but this was different. It let people know that this was going on, that this is the reason why I wasn’t at work. It helped the kids because people talked to them and offered to have them at their homes. People were absolutely wonderful with the kids.”
But other responses surprised Heather.
“We received cards and letters from people who knew the family but we didn’t know them. They told us their stories.”
She says it helped to know that others, whether themselves or their children, had gone through this kind of crisis and were fine. It gave her hope.
“It’s like there was this whole other community out there who understood what I was going through and I didn’t feel so alone.”
William, who was named after he was born, wasn’t about to let a kink in his aorta hold him back, though. He hung out in the womb for the full term so his heart was big enough and strong enough to allow him to have surgery three days after he was born last September. 
“I was worried I wasn’t going to get to hold him,” Heather admits. “I’d held my other children after they were born. He came out screaming and doing well. He was working a little harder to breathe but not so hard they had to rush him away. I got to hold him and see him then I wanted them to take him because then I was scared for him.”

William wakes from his short nap and sits on his mother’s knee. He spits up all over his shirt and grins. 
“Right now, he’s doing well,” Heather says as she wipes off his shirt. “He has high blood pressure and takes medication for that. He gets regular check-ups and is thriving.”
A normal heart valve in the aorta has three flaps in it to deal with blood flow; William’s aorta has only two flaps and so that valve is being monitored.
“Everything is great, today,” Heather says. “The hardest thing to understand is that William has heart disease. Is that valve going to cause problems later on? I try not to think about it.”
Instead, she focuses on the fact that at four months, William is just starting to come into his own and as the youngest of four (his older siblings are twelve, nine and five), he is spoiled.
“He’s happy, for sure,” his mother says. “He’s happy, he’s fun, he’s curious. The kids love him. He’s the centre of attention.”
He’s the heart of their home.

What It REALLY Means to "Think Outside the Box"

I did an interview yesterday for the March 4th "In Conversation With..." column that shocked me.
I don't want to give too much away but I will tell you this: There are plenty of job -- no, not job but career opportunities for Nova Scotia's young people if only they were shown all the possibilities.
If only they didn't buy into the comfortable, safe idea that they can't leave home. Ever. Not even to learn a trade, not even to bring a trade back home.
This young man I spoke with works on ships. Not building them but sailing them. He works the Great Lakes (as opposed to deep-sea shipping) and on average, each of these freighters employs 18 people. He told me he can live anywhere he likes with this job; as in, he can live in Nova Scotia.
"I work more weeks at a time but I have more time off," he said, comparing his job with the ones out west. Because he can't work in the winter (lakes are frozen), his company sends its employees for training.
And his work can lead to other interesting jobs in the shipping industry.
Yet he didn't hear about this career from a high school guidance counsellor or from his parents. He didn't know someone in the business. He had to research it himself. He had to go to Ontario for his training but he doesn't have to stay there in order to work. He plans on settling down in Nova Scotia while he continues to work and train outside the province.
It frustrates me when I see young people that I met when I was a substitute teacher working at jobs in our area that have nothing to do with what they went to college for. Some of them want to work in that field but they don't want to leave home. They paid tuition, they put in the time for studying and training but they aren't willing to do the rest of the work. They don't understand that now, when they are young, is the time to get as much education and apprenticeships and experience and exposure to the damn world that exists beyond this tiny little province as possible, before they settle down with marriage and children and a mortgage. All those personal goals are great but take care of your work future NOW or there won't be a future to stay home for. 
Parents and teachers are not doing their children and students any favours by encouraging them to stay close to home, by not challenging them to explore every opportunity that is out there. Then again, if they've never left the area, if their idea of "world exposure" is a week in Mexico or Cuba, how can our young people have the courage and the example to think outside the box?
That's why Nova Scotia is stuck. That's why Nova Scotia is failing. The work exists -- yesterday's interview proves it -- but too many people are trapped by fear and the misguided belief that this is the best place to live. You can leave, you should leave, you need to go away and learn all that you can, become the best at what you do and BRING IT BACK HOME.
That's how you make Nova Scotia truly the best place to live. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hearts Galore

I fell into collecting photos of hearts purely by accident. Because of something I read about the shape of deer hoofs looking heart-shaped, I began photographing those shapes in the snowy field behind our house. When I was doing a church service last year just before Valentine's Day, I spoke about the heart and about the heart-shaped hoofprints and how 'love is all around'. After that service, a friend emailed me a photograph of a heart she saw in the snow, the shape made by a twig and its shadow.
From that moment, the collecting was on.
The more you look to see hearts, the more you see. Right now, there is a Scotsburn milk truck parked across the street from the Journal office, making a delivery to the SaveEasy. The glass-of-milk graphic on the side of the truck has bubbles in it -- and I can see a heart-shaped bubble.
My Field Notes column this week is about a very special heart. There are fascinating facts about the heart that I couldn't fit in the column so here they are:

  • Every day, your heart sends over 7500 litres of blood coursing through your body. A kitchen faucet would need to be turned on all the way for 45 y ears to equal the amount of blood pumped through a body in an average lifetime.
  • Every day, your heart beats about one hundred thousand times. That creates enough energy to drive a truck 32 kilometers. 

But where did the heart shape we associated with love and Valentine's Day and every "I heart New York" T-shirt come from?
From what I can gather, in the 11th and 12th centuries, when artists began depicting the idea of a heart, an upside-down pine cone, point up, was used to represent the heart in paintings. Apparently, the shape of leaves, like a fig leaf, influenced the image as well.
It's suggested that by the 14th century, this point-up image was flipped and over time, this is the shape that emerged as the universal graphic representing the heart.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Snow Art

At the risk of getting pelted with snowballs, this is how you cope with storm after storm after storm: Find the beauty. Is the deck half full or half empty of snow? Enjoy the flakes, knowing that each one is totally unique.
Of course, this is coming from someone with three decks, none of which are shovelled off.
Of course, you could just be like the chickens who look out the coop door and it doesn't matter whether they see their shadow or not -- they see snow and say, "Looks like six more weeks of winter to me."
The other night, I had to go into town to take a photo for this week's community correspondent report on CTV Morning Live. When I came out of the arena, it was just starting to snow and the streets were empty. I wanted so badly to take the dog for a walk. As much as I embrace my country life and don't want to live anywhere else, that's what the city girl in me misses about living in town: Going for walks in the falling snow after dark, enjoying the quiet streets, the muffled noises, the peace of the evening. 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

In Conversation With...Shannon & Clayton Brooks

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, February 4, 2015, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Shannon, Daisy, Clayton and Cindy in the new horse stalls.

      Every home renovation story -- in real life or on reality TV -- begins with a list of “Must Haves”. That list can get quite extensive for someone’s dream home. 
The list Shannon and Clayton Brooks created for their first home was just as challenging.
“We were looking for a very specific property,” Shannon, 27, explains. “We wanted a house that was in pretty good shape, a space I could run my business out of that wasn’t directly in the house. We wanted a lot of land and a decent size barn, and to be close enough to a city like Amherst, Oxford or Truro but far enough away. And we didn’t want neighbours right next to us.”
One might think there are plenty of those properties for sale in our area but Shannon says the houses were either a mess, the acreage was too small or the price was way out of their range. 
“My work area is Cumberland County and Westmoreland County in New Brunswick so that’s where we were looking,” adds her husband of three years who works for a company that sells dairy farm management tools.
Then they discovered a 51-acre wooded property in the hollow at the western edge of Little River between Amherst and Oxford.
 “We found this place online,” says Clayton, 28. “The main selling point was that the house was in great shape. I’d much rather buy an acreage and fix it up for horses than fix up an entire house.”
Wait, horses? Oh, yeah, Clayton fell in love with a horse girl.
Originally from a small town in eastern Ontario, Shannon was introduced to horses when she was a little girl. 
“My best friend in Grade Two lived on a farm and she got a couple of ponies,” she says. “I went over and saw them and got the horse bug. I begged my parents and they found someone who would give riding lessons to someone that young. Once I started, I never stopped.”
Her parents bought her a quarter horse named Major Mister when she was 12 but Shannon admits she was always fascinated by the horses at Spruce Meadows, the equestrian facility and show venue in Calgary. 
“The jumping horses,” she explains. “There were a couple of horses that I loved, their look, their athleticism, their willingness. When I looked into it, they were the Hanoverian horse.”
Also known as the preferred ride for the RCMP.
“My parents did everything they could financially to make my dreams come true,” says Shannon, “but a Hanoverian was just not happening.”
Knowing she wanted horses of her own but not a career with them, Shannon decided to become a massage therapist. Before starting that course, Shannon enrolled in a business program at what is now the Dalhousie School of Agriculture in Truro. That’s where she met Clayton, whose sister lived in Shannon’s dorm.
It can’t be said that Clayton didn’t know what he was getting into when he married Shannon in 2011: They bought “Daisy”, a Hanoverian, as a two-day old foal just before Shannon finished her massage course. 
Hence the specific list for their dream property: Shannon wanted to work from home and she wanted Daisy to be with her.
After living and working in Sackville, where the Brooks family’s dairy farm is located, the couple moved into their Little River property in 2013 and began working to bring Daisy home from where she was boarded on the Island.
“The barn was described as ‘obsolete’. There was no value on the barn at all,” says Clayton. “The roof leaked – it has a new steel roof on it now – and the siding... The old saying is ‘You could throw a cat through it’. But if you look past the roof and the siding, the main structure of the barn is built so strong with those beams. All the beams were still in their original notches. It would have been a shame to knock it down. The house is fitted together the same way, post and beam construction.”
Clayton says the way the barn was built inspired him to reconstruct it the same way. 
And it’s been a labour of love for these two who worked on their property when they weren’t working at their full-time jobs. The previous owners had turned the run-down barn into a garage so there were no stalls or hayloft. Clayton milled  softwood timber from their woodlot to make the beams and floorboards for the hayloft as well as the fence around the pasture; Shannon varnished all the interior boards that make up the stalls and painted the fence around the pasture.
“We asked the guy who was selling the property what value he put on the woodlot and he said it wasn’t worth anything because he was just using it for firewood and softwood isn’t a good firewood. Meanwhile, I was seeing it for another purpose,” Clayton explains. “They were all mature trees ready to be cut for good logs. It was shame to let them die and rot in the woods.”
Of the time leading up to Daisy’s long-awaited arrival last October, Clayton says, “It was a sleep when you can situation. I don’t know what our neighbours thought of us because we had a chainsaw running even on a Sunday.”
But Clayton is proud of what they have accomplished in such a short time. 
“You go to work and bring home a paycheque but when you go to work on your own place, at the end of the day you can see how much you’ve changed and how much more value you’ve added to your property.” 
Daisy, who is now five, came with Cindy, a 15-year-old brood mare. Breeding a foal from Daisy paid for her board and inspired Shannon’s new venture. 
“I’m taking a breeding course this spring to learn how to breed my own mare,” she says. “Instead of hauling the mares three hours to the Island, why not learn to do it myself? If we can do it right at home where they are relaxed, it makes a lot more sense.”
At the same time, Clayton will be clearing more pasture so Shannon can have a riding ring and he’s going to put new siding on the other side of the barn. Eventually, the entire barn will be refurbished with white siding and red trim. 
 “We found a way to combine both of our hobbies,” he says. “I like to build and work with my hands so basically I’m the groundskeeper and Shannon is the horse girl.”

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A Match Made In Horse Heaven

Limited by space on the page, I only get to tell part of the great story of Clayton and Shannon Brooks in tomorrow's issue of The Oxford Journal. But you will meet a lovely couple who have been working very hard to restore an old barn to its former glory and make Shannon's dream of having horses -- her beloved Daisy, for one -- at home with her.

Monday, February 02, 2015

A Year In 4H: Cake Decorating

The 4H project meetings are underway now and Edie Wood hosted the first meeting for the Linden club's cake decorating Sunday afternoon.
Edie has been teaching cake decorating to 4H members for 38 years. She says she looked back in her book and determined that she has been involved with 167 members throughout that time. What an amazing influence to have. How many well-decorated cakes has she influenced in the last 40 years?
There was supposed to be four members in our group yesterday but illness kept them away. Am I allowed to be delighted that my first attempt at cake decorating became a one-on-one session with Edie? She showed me the correct technique for spreading icing ("It's easier with a round cake," she advised) and then the secret for smoothing the icing. And then I learned that the art of cake decorating -- all those shells and leaves and rosebuds and dots -- aren't as complicated as they look.
But learning the technique to do it well takes some practice, which is what the 4H projects are all about. Providing several months of meetings in order to allow members to practice, practice, practice.
"The kids will spend an hour and 15 minutes on one cake," Edie says of the 90-minute meetings. With each meeting, the techniques improve and the decorations get bolder.
The whole point? Achievement Day in July, when a member decorates a cake and presents it to judges.
"I have nothing to do with that cake," Edie says. "They do it at home on their own."

Remember the 4H motto: Learn by doing!