Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Building Bonds One Boil At A Time

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, by Sara Jewell

Julie Mitchell gets her daughter Dianna ready for the water boil at the 4H county rally.

Dianna Mitchell and Maggie Broughton lay on the cold, wet asphalt in the Pugwash high school parking lot, trying to catch their breath without inhaling smoke while trying to fuel the flames under their tin can.
They were minutes away from success – not a win, but success – but they didn’t know it. Cold, wet and breathless, determination and exhaustion kept them rolling and blowing until the telltale suds overflowed their can, releasing them from what had become an epic water boil.
For these junior members of the Linden 4H club, they’d just learned a valuable lesson: Never give up. Even when you spill the can and have to start over, even when there is a crowd of people watching your every breath, you don’t stop until the task is completed.               

Sitting down with the Mitchell family a few days later in their home outside Oxford, I suggested that Maggie and Dianna, who is eleven, deserve an “I survived the water boil 2017” T-shirts. Her parents laughed.
“Just getting the fire going and the water boiled was a win,” Andrew says.
Their younger daughter, 8 year old Addison, already had twisted an ankle during the back tank event. For a family in their first year of 4H, the woodsmen competition at County Rally, held every year in early April, was quite an experience. The girls, apparently, are looking forward to next year.

Dianna and Addison had asked their parents if they could join 4H after a couple of their friends started talking about it. Despite their busy schedules – both girls are into acting, figure skating, basketball and music – Julie and Andrew decided they could manage another activity if they didn’t take on too much.
“Dianna wanted to do beef but that would be four days a week,” Julie says. “Everybody I talked to said just do one project the first year and stick to non-livestock.”
Livestock may be in their future, however. Julie shows me the “Goat Savings” jar the girls started after woodsmen practice at a farm with baby goats.
According to Julie and Andrew, the biggest challenge of the first year of 4H is all the firsts: the first public speaking or demonstration event, the first county rally. Julie says her girls didn’t know what to expect but now they have more experience.

What they weren’t expecting is the camaraderie that exists in a 4H club.
“You gain a family,” says Julie. “You have the younger and the older together and they all seem to become buddies. 4H is more involved than I realized, there’s a lot of components, like other clubs.”
Andrew is pleased by the opportunities for his daughters.
“With the public speaking and demonstration, they gain skills they’ll use later in life. There’s team building and pride in the club. And there’s volunteer work in the community.”
Dianna and Addison say they’re enjoying their 4H experience and are looking forward to the Junior Tour, an overnight trip that happens every year in June.
“I started 4H because it looked really cool,” says Addison. “It was a whole other world to me.”
She reaches out and gives the Goat Savings jar a good shake. 

Dianna Mitchell and Maggie Broughton bring their water to a boil.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ontario Book Tour

A small but mighty book tour through southern Ontario, visiting the places I once lived, reconnecting with old friends and making new friends, and introducing readers to the stories of Nova Scotia through Field Notes. Hope you can join us at one of these events.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Good Mornings

It was lovely to wake up Thursday morning and see this.
"I love to hear that sound," my husband says of the chirping of the ospreys in the nest.
And now they are working hard at rebuilding their winter-ravaged nest. Well, it appears one works while the other eats. There is no way to tell which one is male and which one is female so why do I assume she's the one lugging lumber and rearranging furniture while he sits on the post and enjoys sushi for breakfast?!

Looking better already. Thank you for coming back, ospreys. Our rural Nova Scotia home wouldn't be the same without you.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Happy To Be Wrong

The familiar silhouette spotted at 5 p.m. this evening.
Always the same time, and within the usual dates.
My husband said I shouldn't have doubted.

I left my camera on so the battery was dead. Took this close-up picture with my phone so it's blurry but I've always photographed the osprey on arrival and it's an essential ritual here.
Now we wait for number two to arrival.
I just looked out the window and he/she is now facing south. On watch. Waiting.
And so we wait some more.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Holy Mud

I follow a Facebook page called The Prayer Bench, and this quote was posted today:

"There is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck. I have walked in the early spring through fields that will suck your boots off, a world so wet and woeful it makes you yearn for the return of ice. But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created."
~ Parker Palmer

Whether you're religious or not, the idea of rebirth -- being able to be born again after dying to one way of living, after hitting rock bottom, after losing everything and having nothing else to lose -- is such a powerful idea for humanity. 

This is what I love about Easter: this story of redemption, this idea that you can die to one way of living and start to live again in a new way, a way that is more your truth, that is more your real self, that is a better version of who you are and who you are meant to be. There is always, always a second chance waiting for us if we are willing to let go of the old, easy way of doing things, and do the hard digging, the kind that gets dirt so deep in the grooves of our fingers and palms that it never washes out, and the hard waiting to see what grows out of that new patch of hope and dreams.

Creating the conditions for rebirth out of a muddy mess.

Easter -- and spring -- are all about new beginnings and potential. I'm not sure if we really find this inside a church sanctuary but you certainly feel this in every cell of your body when you walk through the woods in early spring with the smell of decay in your nose, knowing that with sunshine and patience, that decay -- that muddy mess -- will create green sprigs and buds on the trees and bulbs exploding out of the ground.
The potential for joy is there. 

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Will the Osprey Return?

So it's April 9th.
Any day now, the osprey will return.
Or will they?
August 2015: three almost-fledgings were taken from the nest and killed by an eagle.
April 2016: An osprey arrived but we waited nine long days for its mate to arrive. 
July 2016: There were three babies, then one day there were only two. We never knew what happened to third.
April 2017: This is the worst shape I've ever seen the nest since they began building it in the summer of 2008. It's gone all to hell, as my husband would say, during this winter. Which is no surprise because we noticed last spring and summer how little work they were doing on the nest. None at all, really, so it wasn't built up against the winter winds.
I'm bracing myself -- and you -- for the possibility that the osprey may have abandoned this nest when they flew south last summer.
What happens next -- a new nesting pair takes over or a pair of eagles -- or it remains empty -- will be this summer's raptor drama.
I don't have to tell you how strange it would be to not have osprey living next door.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

A Barn of One's Own

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, by Sara Jewell.

Ever read or see or hear something that spoke to you so much, grabbed your heart or your imagination so completely that you never forgot it and because you never forgot it, a part of your brain is always searching for moments like it?
When I heard Harry Thurston, of Tidnish Bridge, read his poem, “Revelations”, many years ago, I went home with a longing for that moment he describes when he goes out to the barn in the morning to feed his bullcalf: And as I always do/I get down on my hunkers/to watch and listen/to him feed awhile.
The image that follows has haunted me: His snout flecked/ with the grain/he looks up, sees me/slumped down – asleep.
That’s it: the peace of a barn and also the contentment of living with livestock.  
The longing it induced in me has absolutely nothing to do with the theme of the poem; the picture painted by Harry tapped into a then-secret longing of mine to be a farm girl, to have barn chores and the care of creatures who are simple and unpretentious, who speak their own special language.

That’s how I ended up with a flock of hens shortly after moving to Nova Scotia, and we’re into our ninth year of keeping chickens. In the beginning, we used to go out to the coop and sit on the bales of hay and listen to the hens clucking. It was very peaceful. The sound of the hens, the hush of the coop, the smell of the shavings and poop.
Over the past ten years of living here in Nova Scotia, I’ve come to love the smell of a barn. Not just the hay smell and the animal smell but the manure smell, too, all of it swirled in together into an olfactory overload of life and labour and, for me, longing.
Longing for a barn of my own.  

So when I heard Theresa Wood’s voice on the phone say, “Hi, we have baby goats if you want to meet them,” I couldn’t get to their barn in Mount Pleasant there fast enough.
Baby goats? Are you kidding me? Tiny, cuddly, sweet-smelling kids no older than a week, some just a day old. There was no way I was falling asleep inside that barn, not even with a warm baby goat snuggled into my arms as I sat in straw that smelled of goat pee and goat poop and listened to the docile mamas chewing hay while keeping an eye on their newborns.
Theresa and her husband, Mark, are friends from 4H and they’ve indulged my longing for farm life with an open invitation to visit the goats any time I want. So this past Saturday, after a week so busy it bordered on overwhelming, all I could think about was going to the barn “to get down on my hunkers to watch and listen”.

When I left an hour later, there was goat spit in my hair, a pee stain on the right knee of my jeans, the pungent smell of moist straw in my nostrils, and a goaty reek on my hands. There was peace in my mind and happy in my heart.
A moment in the barn was just what I needed.

Briar wants to play, Frankie wants to snuggle. Poor me, stuck in the middle!

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Photographing Spring

With everyone going on about the snow, and lamenting that spring hasn't arrived yet, I went through my digital photographs to see if any of this complaining was justified.
Turns out it is, if any complaining about the weather can be justified.
On April 4, 2010, there was no snow in the back field, no snow anywhere, actually. I have a photo of my husband sitting down on the grass by the chicken coop as he constructed the "pedway" that would take the chickens from the coop to their newly-constructed outside pen in the field.
In 2011 and 2012, my crocuses were blooming in early April, the chickens were dirt-bathing around the house, and Stella was lying on the lawn in sunshine chewing a bone.
But April 2014? The same kind of spring as we're having this year. The photo on the left was taken on March 31, 2014. That was the year that it started snowing in mid-December and snowed all the way through March.  That was the year we had several ice storms. So spring was late that year.
But of course, not as late as the following year! Ah, the winter of 2015, when the blizzards of February and March meant there was still ice covering the river when the ospreys returned in early April and snow on our front lawn until well into May.
Yeah, nothing will ever top the winter of 2015 (although I wasn't here for White Juan in 2005 - any comparison?).

Late springs are nothing new for Nova Scotia. We get our share of early springs -- hanging out at the beach in T-shirts on March 22, 2012 -- and late springs when there is still snow in the woods in early April. I see no sense in bitching about the weather. It will be what it will be.
Oh, right: it's inconvenient. Snow needs shovelling. Rain makes everything wet. Clouds are, well, cloudy. Riiiiiight.

This morning on our walk, the field was crowded with robins. We don't get the first robin of the season -- we get the first dozen!
That's what's so great about East Coast weather -- it's never boring and whatever it does, it does it big. And that's the only reason to be obsessed about the weather in Nova Scotia.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Zen Goat Meditation

Clover the Pygmy kid is a lot bigger than she was a month ago! the risk of jinxing it (writer's superstition), I am working hard on the sample essays for Field Notes 2 -- yes, another collection of essays about the wonderful people I meet and the exciting rural adventures I have in Nova Scotia -- because I want to have them submitted before I leave on the Ontario book tour.
A self-imposed deadline of April 14 seemed doable a month ago but it's taking more time and energy than I expected. Not in a bad way but with church sermons to write, and two assignments for a magazine to complete, plus my bi-weekly column, it's far more work than I'm used to doing.
And I'm not sure if I'm joking or not. 

Now normally, my answer to stressful situations is found in the cookie jar, and in the baking that keeps it filled. Also, walking. Lots and lots of walking.
But sometimes, cookies and walking don't cut it. I need something bigger, something badder, something that bleats and bounces and bumps.
Sometimes the answer is found in the goat barn.
So that's where I headed yesterday morning. I indulged in an hour of fun with the baby goats, who a month after being born, are a lot bouncier and less cuddly than they were at the end of February. But sweet! And funny!
And the big mamas are friendlier now that they are less protective of their no longer newborn offspring. It helps that I arrived loaded up with treats: pieces of carrot and apple. Goat stampede!

By the way, all the babies born last month, all nine of them, have survived and are thriving. Including Frankie, the Togg twin, who spent a couple of weeks living in the house (!) to gain strength so she could get her fair share of mama's food. I tell you, there's nothing more tempting than the friendliness of a house-raised kid. But if I kid-napped her, I'd miss out on the fun of visiting the barn and the other eight babes. 

It just so happens, this also takes care of my column this week (I know - way to not work, Sara). 
My column this week is about seeking out the goats as a time-out from work and thinking. When there's too much non-stop work, the best place to be is the goat barn where it's non-stop play.

In fact, after a morning of church work and an afternoon of - what else? - writing, I'm heading back to the barn right now...