An Eclectic Journey through my Columns in the Pages of
the Halifax Chronicle Herald
I was fortunate to be asked by the Halifax Herald last fall to write a column on living in rural Nova Scotia. Well…that is not exactly how it happened: it was I who proposed to them, and in a fit of politeness, they said yes, and I am still popping up in their pages.
Truth told, I am a bit of a Bluenose Moses about rural Nova Scotia: I love the place. That is why I called the column what I did. No, the place is not perfect, but seen against the backdrop of the rest of the world, we have a lot going for us; not measurable in $$$, of course, but on the scales of human spirit, of community fabric, of fundamental human decency…and a few other things.
But enough of that. Here are a few of my favorite columns: the ones that sparked correspondence…or outrage…or a laugh. Hope you enjoy! – RM
- Hanging the Wash? Or Works of Art?
- In Praise of Silence
- When Squirrels Move In
- A Tale of Two Communities
- A Stranger Plants Some Seeds
- What Has Happened to Trust?
- On Living with a Pet Crow
- Branding in Rural Nova Scotia-Country Style
- The Weathervane Weathers the Storm
- Churches and Their Demise…and the implications
- Ants: They are Under The Snow…Waiting
- The Bee and the Pocket Lens
- A Short Course on Waving in Rural Nova Scotia
Find more of my columns HERE
Hanging the Wash? Or Works of Art?
Let’s start with a whimsical one.
Life is full or surprises. Who would ever guess that people would turn hanging clothes on a line into an art form?
And so it came to pass that we had in Nova Scotia, on April 7th, 2014, a large and visible fire in the sky and the first sunny day in ages in Nova Scotia made itself known to all. And what few robins there were sang and the starlings chattered about where to build their nests, and there was great rejoicing in the land and guess what burst into bloom like colorful bouquets of spring flowers? Clotheslines. All over the countryside, flying the colors of a celebration of spring itself, happily hung by folks who could not bear to be cooped up in the house with the dryer for yet another gloomy, grey day.
“Yesterday,” said one woman I talked to, “was finally such a lovely spring day that I knew I had to take advantage of the fine weather and hang out a line of clothes. I must say I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing a line of nicely hung laundry fluttering in the breeze on a sunny day.”
Amen, Sister. You and me both.
“I’m told it’s an art form and those who do it, do it with precision,” said Colleen Cosgrove, my editor here at the Herald when we discussed the topic.
“Oh?” thought I, wondering. “Art form?”
It was then that I began to think back and to ask a few questions…of myself.
Why of course, I realized, recalling my own habit of observing carefully and colorfully laid out clotheslines, thoughtfully arranged against a bright blue sky. And I immediately thought of several friends who photographed these charming landscape accents as a hobby. And I thought back even further to the clotheslines of my childhood where the socks were hung neatly in pairs, the shirts and pants uniformly and in colorful order, and the undies tucked neatly behind the sheets where they would not be seen by nosy passersby. Was there any other way to do it? Now I am beginning to understand.
Okay, I thought, best I explore this a little more deeply. Art is art. Wherever you find it. And so that is what I did. And I shall tell you what good folks said, but first, this short message taken from my own repertoire of personal passions.
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and hear me when I say that there is nothing, absolutely nothing like falling into bed at night and snuggling down into the sweet embrace of sheets that have been fluffed and dried by a fresh spring breeze. Vocabulary fails me when I try to unfold the bliss of this homecoming, but trust me; it is a sweet, sacred moment, made doubly enjoyable by the fact that you can go to sleep wrapped in a layer of self righteousness knowing that you did not waste the earth’s resources by using a dryer. (Facts: all things considered, a clothes line uses one one hundredth of the energy a clothes dryer does (think power bills): there is no greenhouse gas emission, less fabric wear, less need for ironing, less noise, no static cling, no wastage of house heat, there is no burn out of the elastic on your dainties (guys). and your sheets (take a deep breath) will smell sweeter than anything you will ever find in a box in the store.
Think about it. Are you all excited? Many of the people I talked to were.
That is why, during a few ecstatic, celebratory moments on a fresh spring day these good folk spent a little treasured time painting pictures on the sky. Their wash to them was as flags they were flying; works of art, strung out with care. Some people I found, hung by size, moving from smallest to largest, some by color, creating a colorful harmonic in the continuity, some hung by both. One person I talked with was rather practical about it and hung according to what went in which drawers. Okay. No problem That is what I do, I realized. Maybe it’s a gender thing.
So here comes the curve ball.
Can you even believe, after all you have read, that clotheslines are illegal in many communities in this country? And in the U.S., according to the New York Times writer Ian Urbina, some 60 million people live in private communities where the use of outdoor clotheslines is prohibited. Why? Because they don’t think clotheslines look nice. And many still regard them as a measure of social status, as some years ago, only the rich could afford dryers and others had to use clotheslines. But also because the very well to do, living in gated communities and hanging out designer clothes, found said clothes vanished into the hands of the less well-to-do. And the way to get around that one was, of course, to dry the clothes indoors. Which they still do.
On the ecologically more hopeful side, there is a growing number of people who have moved their drying business outdoors. In Scotland, for example, there is encouragement of the use of what they call drying greens, communal areas predominantly used for clotheslines. Interesting. When in Scotland, let the wind do the work.
Or consider the case of a friend of mine who taught philosophy at Dal who went one step further, and didn’t even invest in a piece of rope. And he taught his students a valuable lesson about conservation and ecology at the same time. Simon had but two sets of clothes one of which he wore, the other he washed on alternate days, hanging them to dry in his apartment while he was at work. I always wondered why he wore a purple shirt and black pants all the time until one day he explained.
And let’s hear it for the government of Nova Scotia: for a law passed by our last government made it illegal to prohibit clotheslines in this province. So there may still be a few covenants here and there but so be it: you can still dry your clothes in a stiff summer breeze if you want.
And lest you be an image conscious Yuppie, wanting to look your best let someone catch you hanging clothes outdoors, take heart: be it known that in anticipation of a (hopefully) coming wave of enthusiasm, there is something in the shopping aisles for you. For in keeping with the commercial habit of gilding lilies so they might better be sold to a gullible public, grandma’s old piece of rope has now been made into several new products that have arrived on our shelves, ranging in price from 20 to 70 some dollars on the low end. Now you can look your best with a Honey Can Do 6-Line, or a Greenway Deluxe. Or to go that extra mile, a Honey Can Do Retractable or a Ben-mor Strata Deluxe.
So there you go. A diatribe on clotheslines, and their harmonic relation to the earth.
In Praise of Silence
These days it is a rare occasion on which one is immersed in total silence. To some it is bliss. Others, constantly awash in ambient noise, find themselves set adrift and totally spooked. Oddly enough, this column set many people to thinking what was missing in their lives. It was a curious choice of topic but once one begins to ponder such a thing…
Recently I had the occasion to spend a couple of days in Martin’s River on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, and as usual was taken with the beauty and the natural wonder of the place. What fascinated me especially after having succumbed to the sleepy-eyed urge to relax, was the ease and depth with which I did same, this due in large part to the tranquility of the place. There were times, in fact, when I could hear absolutely nothing. To me it was just like being at home where the neighborhood preference for peace and quiet is an unwritten code, but one everyone understands.
And there are good reasons for this.
The world is full of people, I know, who will think me nutty for writing a column in praise of silence like this. But there will also be enthusiasts who will cheer me on, one of whom was sitting on our front porch one dark night a while ago about ten-thirty or so doing I knew not what, but she was visiting from the city and had been missing from our living room for a while and I thought it incumbent on me as host to check on her well being.
“Nancy?” I inquired as I left my pool of light and waded into the depths of the darkness outside. “Nancy are you okay?” I could see nothing.
From a corner of the porch came her reply. “Shhhh,” she hushed. “Listen.”
“To what?” I inquired as any reasonable person might.
“To the silence,” she said, in awe.
This is something we in rural Nova Scotia are quite used to, something unheard of in many noisy corners of the world: something many of us here have grown to love. To me silence is holy, but I have seen it leave visitors somewhere between apprehensive and spooked because they know no more about what to do with silence than they do total darkness.
I guess it is all in what one is used to: many of these people come from large cities or towns where noise is excessive and omnipresent, and where every revving engine, every horn, siren, blaring radio, every beeping phone or banking machine bids these souls pay attention and do something…and do it now. Through life many of them goose step like so many Pavlovian dogs, salivating every time someone rings a bell, fitting their quiet time, if they can find any, into the cracks in their acoustic wall.
In many of our soundscapes it never stops. Often above the considered safe level of 85 decibels, (a lawnmower is about 90) the danger of injury from excessive noise can contribute to a rise in blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, increased stress, and coronary artery disease, not to mention aggression and sleep disturbance.
So what, if anything, are these good souls missing? What is it about silence that is treasured by their country cousins?
Now there is a question.
Let’s first look through the lenses of history at the life-giving, mind-calming moments of tranquility and peace of mind sought for thousands of years by many if not most of the world’s major religions or philosophies. In silence is where they find those life-giving moments. Think the path of Buddhist meditation for example. Or the way of the great Christian mystics. Or what any psychologist might have to say. What secrets, what promise might lie hidden behind the walls of noise and confusion that enclose a large part of our world today? This is why many of our neighbors here walk the roads and woodland paths in meditative silence on these tranquil summer evenings, in quiet moments of communion with their inner selves. That is why you will see many sit in silence on a front porch, seemingly doing nothing, but wrapped in a sweet silence that draws them together under a mantle of mutual understanding. Says novelist Nicholas Sparks, “Silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking.”
But there is more that can occur in these moments of total silence.
“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” – Chaim Potok, The Chosen
Listen with me…
There is an almost palpable energy in the air but I hear nothing, save for the faint sound of the arterial blood rushing through my ears but I can still listen with uncommon intensity, senses heightened. There…up there one can hear that subtle swishing sound of the wings of a fast moving raven, 100 meters up, a mere speck in the sky. (many have never heard this unique sound) Or the faint buzz of a field full of bees as they fill, in electrifying stereo, one’s entire soundscape…and that is an immersion like no other. Nothing much is happening, you might think, but soon you realize that everything is happening and you tune into those things as you discover them in your range, relishing, bathing in each. Suddenly you become aware of the delicate melody of a rustling grove of trembling aspens, the only tree whose leaves flutter in the faintest of breezes. Or there is the piping song of a rose breasted grosbeak. Or, or, or. All clear windows on the natural world, all tiny miracles heard in isolation, pure, captivating, listened to against a background of silence in a spirit of reverence and awe.
Yes, take me to a shaded grove with tall, overarching maples, not a breath of wind, and a total silence that sharpens the senses and dulls the mind to the cares of the day: there is a hush over the land, and it is at once quiet, contemplative, energizing, boundless…all unfolding as it has for millennia. intimately connecting me to past and present. This is, for the moment, where I want to be.
I am in my cathedral.
When Squirrels Move In
One of the most unforgettable but celebratory nights of my life occurred when my family and I returned home to find another family had moved in and taken over the place. Squirrels. Squirrels are darling little creatures, especially flying squirrels. But co-habitation was out of the question.
I have read many stories about the biblical Promised Land and I recall something about streets of gold, but nothing about squirrels. I don’t know if they come with the package or not. I do know they come with the package that is called “rural Nova Scotia.” I know that only too well.
What I did not know is that we had flying squirrels in Nova Scotia. They are darling little creatures, actually, and not the pests that out native red squirrels can be.
Trust me: I found one in our bathtub.
No, it was not taking a bath, but was curled up, soaked, cold and near death, stuck in the drain. And at that point it did not even look like a squirrel. My family and I were not sure what it was.
What does a feller do with a helpless, soaked, seemingly comatose little animal like that? Well, when you have three young boys, there is but one path before you. You find a hair dryer and see what you can do to revive it. And then figure out what it is. And so, with a little patience and the whole family watching, the little creature began to respond to the warmth and then to wobble to its feet.
Thinking a little warm milk might be in order, we prepared a bit of that and soon, with the aid of an eye dropper, the little animal responded and was up on its feet and like us, probably wondering how it got there and what was next.
Thinking it to be a common red squirrel, back of mind I was already planning to find its nest and redeposit it there. I was, to say the least, not fond of these creatures. Often referred to as “tree rats,” they can do much damage to a home, or to cottages at an inn, I found out the hard way. But a red squirrel it was not. This we discovered when there was a shriek from the kitchen and we rushed to the scene to find my wife, Carole backed into a corner, speechless, but pointing. Others climbed the nearest chair.
There for all to see was a mature specimen of a flying squirrel that had swooshed down the stairwell from the second floor, past Carole only to land on the back of a sofa. This was not exactly what she was expecting on an otherwise quiet night with our kids. But that was the problem thrust upon us, especially with the arrival on the scene of yet another adult flier who swooped down on the scene to the great amusement of the boys, who took great delight in watching the politics of what happens when parachuting squirrels are dropped into an otherwise tranquil evening. Add three more baby squirrels, who could scramble but not fly, and you have the whole scene…and oh yes: one more thing. The family dog, Ernie, a miniature bundle of pure poodle energy whose life purpose bubbled to the fore, and before long he too was bouncing off the furniture and the walls. Yes, it was chaos come to an otherwise tranquil evening in rural Nova Scotia.
We knew we would never catch the adults in an open concept two story house where it was a major job to change the light bulbs in the ceiling. So our first effort in restoring order was to confine Ernie to a bedroom where he added his loud howling lament to the already slapstick scene. We then were privileged to watch these amazing animals as they glided from point to point, turning with ease and dexterity, landing softly wherever they chose. Their long, controlled glides we later learned are made possible by what is called a patagia (just in case you like a little trivia), a loosely stretched membrane between their little squirrel wrists and their ankles. Steering is accomplished by stretching one side of the patagia, or by twisting the flat furry tail to the point that the squirrel can, if it so decides, make 180 degree turns or even gain altitude. Rather more fascinating, we learned later, flying squirrels are thought to estimate distance by triangulation, a form of navigation based on trigonometry, this evidenced by their habit of moving their heads from side to side before they jump so they might “triangulate” just how far their goal may be. Go figure.
More little miracles in our Nova Scotia woodlands.
Flying squirrels are native to Nova Scotia, we found out with a little searching, although none of us had ever seen one. The Northern Flying Squirrel, which these were are more abundant here than their cousins the Southern Flying Squirrel. Nocturnal with large, liquid eyes that specialize in night vision, they are found generally in old growth forest, and are charming little creatures, set by appearance and habit well apart from their noisy and plentiful red squirrel cousins.
And how did it all end?
Well, we think and hope. We all went to bed behind closed doors, including the squirrels after we turned the lights out. My job was to keep Ernie quiet as he felt obliged as dogs do to woof now and again when he heard a squeak. We left a few doors and windows open a bit and in the morning they were gone and, we like to assume, they lived happily ever after in their chosen place of residence in the great outdoors. We never did find out how this family of gentle little squirrel people got into the house and our lives. Or why. But thankful we were that they did.
And as parents we were thankful that our children were once again exposed to the miracle of creation in the natural world around them, and the wondrous little creatures with whom we share our precious planet.
A Tale of Two Communities
And then there was this story that raised the hackles of a number of people when I simply called things in a couple of places as they were. It is a fact that some people live charitably and well, some do not. Simple as that. And both states of mind are contagious and can spread through entire communities. I have seen it happen. Simply stated, this is a story about love: where it was…and where it wasn’t.
A few days ago, I was made aware once again of the good works of a group of people in the Greater St. Margaret’s Bay area and their noble and forward-facing efforts with respect to encouraging such things as local gardening, co-op greenhouses, skills training, transportation and energy options, local currencies, etc. (See more at http://www.transitionbay.ca/)
Wondrous, important and enlightened work, if I might say, especially when seen in the light of our changing times.
Why, I wondered, why there? What mysterious forces sparked the efforts of the people in those communities that surround the Bay?
Based on my experience of living in a number of Nova Scotia communities, and my work in community development, I have some thoughts.
You know what I have concluded? After living in some five places in N.S. and getting to know many others? That communities are like people; you don’t really know them until you live with them.
And don’t let their scenery fool you. That has no more to do with quality of life in a community than the shape or color of a person’s body does with whether they will or will not treat you in a spirit of human decency and maybe help you chop a little firewood or even do the dishes now and again.
So that said, let me, for purposes of what we might learn here about how our rural communities work (for it is an interesting question), share brief profiles of two of the five Nova Scotia communities in which I have lived in my day. The question of why they differed so is one I have puzzled about for years and shared with many. And some intriguing answers have been forthcoming.
We shall call them communities One and Two to avoid either undue pride or embarrassment. As old Clarence Corkum said one day, whilst we were having a nip of cider and putting wooden shingles on the barn roof, “I ain’t mentioning no names.”
So let’s start in Oneville with a couple of telling tales, the first starting with a knock on the door shortly after we moved into the community. I recall the encounter fondly, for we answered said knock and found an apple pie bearing stranger who took it upon herself to welcome us into the community. And welcomed we felt. On a different occasion another visitor arrived on behalf of the little local church, also bearing home cooked gifts, and announced in endearing tones that we would be welcome to attend church once a week, once a year or not at all: we would be welcomed into the little community no matter what.
My kind of church.
On another occasion, I recall sitting with my wife in a little restaurant one day while our three young boys played on the sidewalk outside.
“Who is looking after your kids?” a well meaning friend asked.
“Those people right there,” I replied reflexively, pointing randomly to people outside the window. For that is how it was. Everyone watched over our kids, and we watched over theirs. And if our kids dared to step out of line or break the social rules in any way, we parents would be the first to hear about it. Thus did we confirm after twenty-five years of raising our children there, that the old African saying was true: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Another story: I recall when a little bit of uncommon vandalism began to creep onto the main street, that a couple of citizens stayed up all night with a video camera until they caught the perpetrator on tape. He was subsequently stopped on the street and told of the evidence. And that if he didn’t stop, someone would call…not the police…but his mother. The vandalism stopped.
Another sweeping ethic that held sway in that community was that of sharing. I recall from the present vantage point in my life that there were no land disputes and there was an uncommon sense of generosity when it came to sharing whatever one had. There were few if any “No Trespassing” signs and one could walk pretty much anywhere one wanted as long as one did so with due respect.
“Oh you can have it,” said Eric, a local farmer of generous spirit, when I inquired about the future of a small barn that sat idle on his property. There was, abroad in the land, a culture of giving, of watching out for others, of generosity with respect to material things, time and money, a tradition not unlike that of our Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous people who held potlatch ceremonies in which they practiced the fine art of gifting unconditionally, a habit banned by the Canadian government in the early 1800’s and frowned upon by the organized church for reasons I don’t know…but can guess.
And then there were the churches and service clubs. Lots of them. And many were their good works.
And on it goes, story after story holding aloft the gentle, embracing character of the community and its people. It all worked very well and there was much new and exciting to show for the people’s efforts.
Now, lest I stand accused about being too positive about Nova Scotia (as I sometimes do) let us take a look at Twoville, a different kettle of fish altogether.
Twoville proved that one cannot always take literally the “welcome” sign on the edge of town. Our abrupt awakening to this happened when we one day shortly after moving there and seeing no notices to the contrary, my wife and I, accustomed to another ethos, wandered across a rather large piece of land and were subsequently sought out, and royally berated by its owner and told never to set foot on it again without first asking permission. The man’s warnings were so caustic that my wife was heartbroken and thought we had made a rather gross mistake by moving there. This, we found later, was not an isolated case, but was the prevailing ethic in the area.
And as for the welcoming apple pie, it never happened. Nor did anything of its sort. In fact, a couple of months after we moved there I decided one day when I had a few moments I would take the initiative and knock on a random door and introduce myself, just to break the ice.
This is did. I told the woman my name and said, “we just bought a place up the road from you and I just dropped in to meet you…”
I waited for her words of welcome, or some sort of reaction.
It came all to soon as an icy, hanging monosyllable.
“So?” she said.
I am not often stuck for answers but that day I stood dumbfounded.
By now we realized we had unknowingly moved into a place of endless scrapping about fences, about streetlights, about family feuds a hundred years old in which descendants were told by their parents not to talk to each other, for reasons that had been lost in the mists of time. On the bottom line newcomers were just not welcome: the local people even had a name for them: CFA’s or “Come From Aways.”
Such attitudes filtered down, of course, into the minds of the community’s children, and the attitudes of the adults were thus perpetuated to be passed on to even further generations.
In the end, though, we made many good friends there, but any number of times, banged our shins on the hard edges of a society that had lost its way, lost its heart.
“To see rightly, one must see with the heart,” said Teilhard de Chardin.
My family and I bore the people no malice for these behaviors. “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” you know?
And in that simple statement lay the crux and the insight into the matter.
For the folks in Oneville, by contrast, did know what they were doing, precisely, remaining vigilant at all times, gentle, caring and forgiving, watching for the tiniest tear in their social fabric, finding often a way to make things not onorous, but fun (a fine art but easily learned), embarking on what was to them an adventure of building whatever they could with the tools and small amounts of cash at their disposal. I do recall a great deal of laughter on those occasions when I was involved, for it was all a matter of spirit: of a positive mental attitude.
And what sparked and propelled all this forward were certain positive-minded community members who set the pace and an example for all to follow. In the second community, there were those who set an example, but it was, alas, a dark and contagious one whose caustic clouds and negative attitudes about the future cast a long shadow over the efforts of the few who wanted to sweep back all that and live in the light of a new day. My family and I saw their negative influence many times.
For me, over the past 20 years, the two tales above have established themselves in my mind as parables, and as I travel the province, which I do frequently, I note, as you probably do, the sparkling accomplishments of some communities, and the sad fallback of others. Every time I visit or drive through them, I think of a quote from Henry Ford that might apply to those very places.
“Think you can, or think you can’t,” he said. “Either way you’ll be right.”
A Stranger Plants Some Seeds
Here you have a story about one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. For one reason or another, inspirational people seem harder to come by than they were years ago. I don’t know why that is. But many people say that. The man you are about to meet, for reasons you are about to understand, still stands tall in my memory even though he died several years ago. I am pleased to be able to introduce you to him now.
This is a story about a hero of mine: an uncommon man born to poor parents on a hardscrabble Nova Scotia farm in the early 1900’s who somehow moved through the darkness of an early life to emerge as the self-described “luckiest man in the world.” Here was a man who came to my door a stranger and to whom I would affectionately refer in later years as “Dad.”
It is hard to know where to begin to tell the story of Roland Porter.
Perhaps on an gloomy day in September, in the early eighties while I sat, pondering the unfolding world, when a strange car rumbled up our driveway.
A very old man got out, took a brief look around and then shuffled towards the house. He walked with a most unusual gait, I noted, for one leg was shorter than the other, and a misshapen foot had bent and twisted inward so that walking for him was extremely difficult. His body was stooped, his back bent, his head hairless, his nose malformed. As he approached, it was obvious that his hands as well were sadly misshapen with fingers congenitally joined in pairs so that the manipulation of the simplest objects looked daunting if not impossible.
The stranger knocked robustly.
Unable to even imagine what the man’s mission might be, I opened the door. The old man looked me in the eye and with the utmost confidence and composure, held out a gnarled hand. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Porter. And you are living in my house.”
I shook the man’s hand, invited him in, and we began to converse.
“I was born in this old place,” he said, in a mischievous sort of way. “Seventy-eight years ago.” And from there, he unfolded a spellbinder of a story: here was a person, after all, who was old enough to have talked to a man who fought with General Custer at Little Bighorn.
He was, it happened, born badly deformed into a little farming family that had no place for another dependent, but needed, rather, to have good, strong men to keep at bay the weeds of summer and the winds of winter. A tough life it was for everyone in those years, especially during the Depression. Roland’s father, noting his deformities, rejected him from the moment of his birth, as he could see no place for the boy on their busy farm: rather to him his new son was but another mouth to feed and he made this point clear to anyone who was within earshot. Never in his life did he ever hold the child, never did he offer an affectionate word to the day he died, despite the lifetime of longing of his son.
One day when the little boy, with his awkwardly misshapen fingers tried to prove himself, he went into the garden on his mother’s suggestion and working diligently, picked a couple of small boxes of strawberries. In eager anticipation, he awaited his father’s return, his heart yearning for a favourable reaction. The father returned, but he said nothing. What the boy overheard instead was his mother rising to his defence. “You see?” she said to her husband, holding up the strawberries. “I told you he was good for something.”
And I thought I had problems.
The old man told many stories like this about the painful early years of his childhood. To even hear them was almost unbearable.
A few minute turned into a few hours.
Inspiration, on the poor farm was, like a bountiful crop, hard to come by. Secretly, by candlelight at night, the boy would read stories of Abraham Lincoln, and he derived comfort and strength from Lincoln’s wise and compassionate words. Or he would find a friend here and there that would give him the encouragement to go on. But life was tough. Unlike many of his fellows, he became an avid reader and paid attention in school, walking for some two hours to get to his high school classes as his family did not have enough money for train fare. At length, and seeking companionship he joined the local church but never did find the camaraderie he was seeking. After graduating from high school he decided to become a teacher and travelled to Truro but after just a few day in classes he was told quite bluntly by the principal that he was wasting his time, not for academic reasons but because of matters of his physical appearance. At length, in his twenties, he bought a one way ticket to a large Canadian city, a thousand miles away. “I knew no one there,” he said,” but it had to be better than where I was.”
His story that day was a long one, and before we knew it, we had whittled away an entire afternoon. The man, it turned out was very knowledgeable, especially about current affairs, politics, human nature, etc., all subjects of interest to me.
So is the world a better place that it was when you were growing up? I asked him.
In some way yes, he said, in some ways no.
In what way were the old days better, I asked him.
He thought for a bit.
“Well,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I remember for example one night when my brother and I got a little thirsty and we got out the horse and wagon and went into the village to get a little sustenance and…well…we found…perhaps…a little too much and in the end, we thought it best to climb into the back of the wagon to rest. And we did. But then the horse started walking and next thing we knew it took us the two miles home and went right into the barn. You can’t do that today.”
No, you can’t.
The stories went on all afternoon.
But what emerged that was most spellbinding of all, was Rollie’s philosophy and the outpourings
of his compassionate heart which led him to share what he had, and to help as many as he could along the way. Somehow he had managed to marry happily, emerge victorious, and at the ripe old age of seventy-eight, he was pleased to be able to declare himself, “the luckiest man in the world.”
We two became friends and exchanged letters for many years and were as father and son.
Before Roland left that day, we talked at length about my work in the community, for he had been receiving the little paper of which I was editor and he had followed my thoughts with interest. When I told him of my flagging hopes for change, he said something that sat in the back of my mind awaiting further rumination: something that would one day, and for the rest of my life, offer strength and sustenance on dark days. What he said was this:
“Sometimes it is more important to plant seeds than to find gold.”
What has Happened to Trust?
We used not to lock our doors in Nova Scotia. Now it is assumed everything will be kept under lock and key? Why? Who threw the first stone? Who installed the first locks? And why? I look for some answers.
Remember when the word was common parlance?
It’s not any more.
Ever read the fine print on that charge card agreement? Or your mortgage statement? Ever try to write a check in the liquor store?
Who started all this business of distrusting each other? Not I. My father told me when I was a little kid that if I ever did anything dishonest, my grandfather’s ghost would get me. Woooo. Metaphor or not, I still look over my shoulder every time I make a promise.
But…close your eyes for a moment and imagine a day when you could comfortably live in a house in Nova Scotia with no locks on the doors.
I did. Relatively recently. In a beautiful two story rambling old farmhouse along with my wife and family…and all the trappings modern and antique associated therewith. For some twenty-five years.
How this came to pass and the larger questions it calls forth are to say the least, thought provoking, and they give insight into how our modern world works, and why I consider it a blessing that there are still some places in Nova Scotia that have held onto the old rules of human decency, roots and all. And they are great places to live.
The story of our lockless house starts with a call to a local rural NS real estate dealer, Tom Burbidge by name: a gentle, jovial character whom we did not know but whose reputation for integrity had preceded him on the rural grapevine, an old fashioned version of Facebook…but somewhat more reliable.
“I will meet you there at 1 pm,” said Tom on the phone. “Tomorrow.”
Close to the appointed time, my wife and I were wrapped in a cloud of eager anticipation. And then the phone rang.
“Sorry,” said the good man. “But I can’t make it. Just go up yourself: the door is open. There are no locks. Never were in a hundred years.”
We repaired to the house in question, looked through it and in the end, charmed as much by the lock story as anything else and what it said about the neighborhood, we made the purchase.
We lived in that grand old house for some twenty five years…with no locks. It wasn’t a matter of expense; it was on the list but we just never got around to it. Frankly, we didn’t care. We even went away on an extended trip for two months and came back to a house that was exactly as it was when we left it.
Good as it gets.
When it came time to move away to open an inn on the other side of the province, we did so with heavy hearts, and put our beloved house on the market. The first people who were interested in buying the place came from Montreal and said they would not even look at the place unless there were working locks on the doors. And so, we acceded to their wishes and dug holes in the hundred year old doors (shudder!) and put locks on the place. They bought the house.
Now, for reasons of contrast, let me tell you another story, one that reflects the realities of today’s worried world.
My family and I, on the other side of the province and still in a rural area, settled into the lifestyle of running an inn, only to find one day, that the Department of Tourism, in their wisdom thought it a good thing if we had not one, not two…but three locks on all our cottage or room doors. I refused.
“Part of our charm, in rural Nova Scotia,” I explained, “is the fact that we are not riddled with crime as are other parts of the country. That is part of the reason people visit here, feel comfortable here, live here. We have never had a problem at this inn with break in or theft in five years of operation. You will create an unnecessary atmosphere of fear and scare all our tourists away.”
I was told bluntly that if I did not install all the locks, that our inn’s rating stars (of which we had four and a half…for which we had worked very hard) would be taken from us. Being of an age that I thought myself too old to be working for stars, and unable to bring myself to dig yet more holes in beautiful old doors, I refused again.
They took our stars.
This whole lock-your-doors fit raised a rather large province-wide question in the industry, about which opinions ranged between “absolutely necessary” and “ridiculous.” You can guess which camp I was in.
So how on earth did we, in this gentle, trusting little corner of the world move from open house to lockdown? When and why did we stop trusting each other? From whence came that unholy rip in our social fabric? It’s a good question, too seldom asked.
Maybe the ongoing flood of frightening tv news and entertainment that has spilled across our borders and into the minds of our children for the last fifty years has something to do with it.
Television has become the definer and transmitter of society’s values. -Erik Barnouw, U.S. Radio and Television historian
Maybe it is the outpourings of the internet: the omnipresent mirror of our lives that drags our follies and fears into cyberspace for all to see, leaving us spooked, vulnerable and scared even to smile at a stranger.
But what is most important is that for one reason or another, and against all odds here in Nova Scotia, we are still us.
I just spent a week in the Tatamagouche area. What a charming corner of the world! What great, easy-going, affable folks. Were these people I knew before? No. Not until I talked with them for a few minutes. Now I feel I have friends there. We will remember each other the next time I go there and we will pick up right where we left off. When we ran our inn, visitors spoke of the highlights of their visit to Nova Scotia all the time. “It’s the people,” they would say. “It’s the people.”
It is our people.
Steady as she goes, folks. And worry not about our future days. We still have a lot going for us.
On Living with a Pet Crow
Looking back, living with a crow was easily one of the most magical, life-affirming adventures of my life. And it left me with indelible memories that enhance my life to this day. I am pleased to be able to introduce you to my honorable feathered friend.
There are few of whom one can say “I knew him when he was an egg.” But Leroy the Crow, when we first noted his nest atop a high spruce was, in fact, round and greenish-blue; a single cell; a yolk surrounded by white, just like the eggs you see in your fry pan on Sunday morning.
With time I watched that egg blossom into a jet black, sleek sided, flying machine; one that housed in its cockpit a gentle, living, breathing “crow-person:” an adventurer, an acrobat, a joker, and…a close friend. This was for me a mind altering experience that changed the way I looked at the animal world forever.
What happened to the busy parents of that little crow-to-be we never knew, but one day to our chagrin, the clamorous noise of several hungry nestlings died down to just a feeble croak. Climbing the tree to inspect, I found but one little crow, barely alive. Having raised orphaned birds before I knew the routine ahead, but not the experience that was in store.
With three small boys in the house, a baby crow was more than welcome. Scrawny and unkempt, and covered with pinfeathers that made him look like a giant burdock, the little beast soon learned that if he squawked loud and long enough, someone would take turkey baster in hand and feed him, this accompanied by loud and raucous gobbling sounds. At length he became so ravenous we simply poured the contents of the blender directly into him. Some days, we could actually hear him filling up.
As spring unfolded into summer Leroy grew as crows do, eventually hopping about and testing his flying motors while holding tight to the sides of his makeshift “nest” in the back porch. At this point, still covered with pinfeathers, he looked not unlike one of those early French flying machines that never did get off the ground.
And then one day when the enthusiasm of the wings outweighed the fear of the toes, he lifted off. The flight was for the most part straight down, but it marked the beginning of a burning desire to fly, and of playtime and adventures with the boys which would go on for several months.
And then one day it happened. The boys were outdoors playing in a small wading pool when along strutted Leroy, who was always fascinated by water, and who with his usual gusto, hopped into the pool and began to flap and preen and pull off the sheaths that held his feathers prisoner.
The bird that stepped out of that pool was not the one who stepped in. Suddenly, there stood a regal looking bird in a shiny black suit, smiling for all to see. Leroy the Crow. Mister Cool.
Flying lessons came next. Through it all I was Mrs. Wright, wincing while watching son Orville trying to get off the ground in a heavier-than-air flying machine. Bang. Crash…and clouds of dust and feathers. One time he hit the side of the barn and slid down two floors to the ground, his beak hammering a rat-tat-tat on the shingles as he dropped. Just like in the cartoons.
But with practice he got good. Very good. He could fly fast, slow, on his left side, his right, his back: he could do barrel rolls and rise straight up from the ground as if on an invisible elevator. And free he flew wherever he wanted to go. Leroy the Crow: ace pilot.
The adventures that unfolded for our family from this point on were enough to fill a small book (which I later wrote) they were so copious, so telling, so endearing. Suffice it to say here that he worked his way into the hearts of my family and friends to a degree that no one expected.
Thus did I develop a deep, loving and indelible bond with Leroy and an intimate channel of communication I never thought possible with a creature of the animal world, much less a bird. From his last cooings at night as he fluffed his feathers under the overhang of our porch to his cawed first greeting of the dawn from the old maple outside our bedroom window, to his half kilometer glide to my outstretched arm when I called him, this quirky little member of our family awakened and instilled in me a deep and abiding respect for the living, breathing spirit of all the world’s animals with whom we share the gift of life on our precious earth.
Who are you, I wondered, little person-in-a-crow-suit? What are you trying to say to me when you bend low, spread your wings and coo that soft, sweet, liquid, guttural rolling song? From whence your strange little quirks? Where did you ever get the idea of sitting on the roof racks of my car, hanging upside down and peering in at me through the windshield or pecking at the wipers in the falling rain? Who taught you to meet the boys at the school bus? Or to torment our poor, patient little dog like you do, until St. Francis himself would curse you for your deviousness? And what do you do with the socks you steal off our clothesline? And from whence the curiosity that bids you to pick and play with a flower or poke at the ice cubes in my drink: see the sparkle of the sun on them? Is it not intriguing how they bob when you peck them? Isn’t water peculiar stuff? Would that the rest of us were as fascinated by the world around us: we might take better care of it.
Thus was that glorious, enriching and memorable summer spent in intimate companionship and it was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
There is a special spot reserved in the hearts of all who met Leroy, and by easy extension for the sanctity of the lives of other creatures who share our precious planet.
Some people will understand this, some will not.
Sad to say, Leroy died on the first day of the hunting season, 1982. Target Practice.
Branding in Rural Nova Scotia
Here we go. I took a little static on this one, as I have little time or patience for this whole commercial business of trying to define oneself in marketable terms. Such was the assignment on this piece as a small Valley town looked in the mirror…
It is branding time in the Annapolis Valley.
The Town of Kentville is looking for a “compelling brand” and has announced plans to seek same, and wants input from the general public, from inside and outside the town.
Well, here I am.
I cannot help myself but I still think of branding as an old exercise reserved only for cowboys. I shall try to be constructive here but when I was a little kid I saw Roy Rogers hop off his horse and cook a steak on the rump of a tied up cow. I could never forgive him for that. His wife, Dale Evans said it didn’t hurt…but did she ever ask the cow? Now, years later, the b-word still has the same effect on me, whether the branding is for a cow…or a community.
Sorry if I am raining on anyone’s parade here, but I sat through some five years of branding exercises while on the province’s Tourism Partnership Council. Twenty great people around the same table and no two with the same idea, all trying to fit descriptors to a community which is exactly like fitting adjectives to a person. Can you describe yourself in six or eight words? If so, would you describe yourself exactly as you are? Or as who you think you might like to be? Or as a person that you think others might like? Same exercise.
But properly executed branding works. It must. Otherwise men would not go around with Chevrolet hats on. Harley Davidson would not have come back from the brink in 1985 and successfully wooed riders to build the 7.8 billion dollar company it is today. And men would not buy shirts with no breast pockets and an embroidered logo of some dude on a horse where a pocket ought to be, bringing to mind verse like:
Tell me, tell me, Ralph Lauren:
Where am I to put my pen?
It’s all a game.
Says Kim Huston, a so called expert who wrote “Small Town Sexy,” when asked the top challenges for small towns engaged in a branding exercise, “Typically small towns do not have the budget necessary to do a branding exercise effectively.” It is an expensive business if one is to pull it off. But maybe there is hope.
Here, based on my experience in branding exercises and conversations with friends in the business are a few general (constructive, I hope) thoughts.
1. First and foremost, try not to say things like “Discover the businesses of the town of Kentville,” as is on your website. If anyone senses that your brand is about getting your little pinkies into their pockets, you are beat before you get off the starting blocks and you will be eaten for breakfast by the big box stores down the road. You need something new and different.
2. Look around at other rural towns who have gone through the same exercise: see who has hit the mark; see who has blown it. Learn from them.
3. Make yourself abundantly clear. When people look at your brand logo they should not have to ask, “What on earth is that supposed to be?” And the last question you want to hear is, “They paid how much for that?” Do any recent examples of this folly come to mind? Hint: the city begins with “H.”
4. Be not pretentious. There is a branding-based mantra for this that I used to mention in branding meetings and might suggest to any rural town engaging in this exercise. It will help keep you focused. And humble. It goes like this: “There is only one Big Apple and we are not it.”
5. Remember your rural roots. Try not to look like anything you are not. My humble advice to you, dear residents of Kentville, with respect, is that you remember how things work in the country. Our wider world is awash in false promises, boastful self-aggrandizement and horn blowing and most people are tired of it. In large cities most people don’t know each other and so you can get away with a lot: put some goonsbody in a splashy suit and sit him in a Mercedes and people will point and say, “Ohhhh! Ahhhh!” Do the same thing in the country and people will point and say, “Look at that goonsbody in the Mercedes. Who does he think he is?”
We all know how that one works. Right? Be thyself.
6. Pay not through your taxpayers’ noses for your branding exercise. Been
there. Done that. My family and I were once in business in HRM and we honked out as much as 45 grand a year in taxes with no water, septic service, or adequate police protection. Multiply that by the number of years we were in business and you might say we came danged close to paying for the whole dizzying H/\LIF/\X brandingdance ourselves. And you wanna know what I think of all that? I think you can guess.
So if I have any advice for you at all dear citizens of Kentville, it would be this: branding is a very imprecise process, very costly to get right no matter how you do it. And once you establish a brand, it will be yours, whether it works or not, just like the brand on the rump of Roy Rogers’ cow. And yours will be but one brand, one voice in an ever-rolling sea of persuasions that go on in the swirling, tangled, social media-soaked world around you. But that said, I think there is hope and you might just find a way to do it right and to not break the bank.
So relax. Have fun with your people while you search. Just be the genuine, warm and gentle rural folk that you are: look inward and lead with your heart. Be daring. Be original. Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines. Practice random acts of kindness every day on your streets and in your businesses.
The world just might then be ready to look twice at your new brand.
The Weathervane Weathers the Storm
One of the most intense and memorable snow storms of my life provided the backdrop for this story, and a look into the witty side of rural conversation.
This being the first part of February, and and having just dug my poor, dear, faithful old car out of yet another snow bank, I was thinking back to a snowstorm that passed our way shortly after my wife and I first moved to rural Nova Scotia in the fall of 1975 and an incident associated with that storm that underlined a fond memory, one of a rather special and quirky aspect of local rural character that, depending on your point of view can be both charming and socially beneficial, or it can drive you over the edge of the nearest cliff.
I am referring to the number of people in the country who know not only who you are, but where you have been, where you are going, exactly what kind of person you are, and what you are up to at any given moment. After a while you get onto a roll with all this and if you have a sense of humor and taste for mischief (as most here do), you can understand how it all works and you can play the whole off-beat thing like an instrument.
What is most interesting is that on the positive side, this inborn curiosity helps the community keep a watchful eye on things, as anyone who lives in rural N.S. knows. Thus anyone from elsewhere who chooses to get into serious badness soon finds the police at their door because Mary, perhaps, caught the first two numbers of the strange license plate, Reg noticed the last two, and Phil said, “I saw that truck somewhere before…”
Anyway, I’ll take it, thanks. For I appreciate the phenomenon at all its levels.
The fact that people don’t miss much was best exemplified in our lives by one Bun Barkhouse who lived next door to the house we bought which needed no small amount of repair and considerably tidying of its backyard.
Our arrival on the scene from the city was perfect for Bun who lived alone and had an ample window that faced in our direction. We were better than television for him, tripping over our thumbs, trying to figure out the complexities of gardening, how to jack up the corner of a sagging old barn, how to move an old motor block and what to do with it when we did move it.
Bun never missed a thing: the comings and goings of friends, the visitors who arrived when we were not there (full description of car, gender, height, weight of occupants), etc. The depth and astuteness of his sweeping powers of observation…and the whole game…were underlined early on by a comment he made one day that took us aback, after we told him that we were surprised to learn that our cat had somehow got pregnant.
“Oh yes,” said Bun seriously, taking it in his stride. “I wondered why that old black tom was hanging around…”
With time our relationship, and this habit of watching us all the time became more playful, as on one occasion when we were busy planting neat rows of lupins we had bought at the market in Halifax. Within minutes, Bun was there, watching, advising us on how deep to plant, how much water, etc., for which we were grateful. After a while, he made a funny little sort of squeak as some do when they pull air through their teeth, which we later learned was a curious, unconscious habit of his that he performed just before he took his shot.
“Where did you get those?” he asked, pointing to the ditch on the other side of the road. “Over there? Then he would slap his leg and laugh his tail off. And go tell everyone in the neighborhood who would later say to us out of a clear blue sky, “You wanna buy some lupins?” Or…”Don’t plant any dandelions this year.” Or whatever.
Fun, it all was and our life was peppered with teasing quips at our expense.
The classic wisecrack, though, came from Bun on the occasion of what we fondly call “The weather vane incident.”
New to the country, we were intrigued by the knowledge most local people had about the weather, and their ability to predict it by simply knowing the direction from which the wind was blowing.
It seemed to me, then, that it would be a good idea to fashion a weather vane, and so that is what I did. Complete with swinging arrow and direction markers, it was complete save for the “sail” part which in the country was often a rooster, a cow or some other item of traditional interest. Finding those a little cliché for my taste, I drew a profile of our dog, Woofer, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier, of which most people had never heard, but the name sounded funny, as indeed the dog was, looking as she did like a floor mop on legs. I cut Woofer’s profile out of thin ply and installed it as a sail on the swinging arrow, and then attached it to our little barn that was barely as tall as I was. I sat back proudly to watch my handiwork as it responded to the slightest breeze.
Good as it gets.
Neither Bun nor the neighbors ran out of teasing wisecracks, but that was all part of the fun of living in the country.
The classic line came, though, on February 2, 1976 when a weather system called a Saskatchewan Screamer raced in from the west and manifested as the infamous Groundhog Day Storm, bringing devastation, darkness and grief to the whole province. Blinded and buried by the white stuff, we found ourselves unable to see my beloved weather vane for the blizzard. When everything finally began to clear the next day, the weather vane was nowhere to be found. I bundled up warmly and headed north across the fields in what was left of the blizzard in the only direction it could have gone. I found it at length about a quarter of a kilometer away, half buried in the snow.
Carrying it back to the house I noticed Bun, warmly wrapped, his face barely visible, trudging towards me in the swirling snow. Somehow I knew he was about to deliver one of those lines of his. We met in a swirl of snow.
Here it comes.
“You figure out,” he asked, “which way the wind is blowing?”
I still get teased about that one.
Churches and the Sadness of their Demise
This was a painful topic that touched many a reader I found. One at a time, across Nova Scotia, I had watched as churches, once bastions of community well-being, closed their doors and bade farewell to their gray haired congregations. Religious teachings aside, their loss cut deeper that one might first imagine.
When I saw in my travels one day the hard-hitting scene above I was stopped dead in my tracks for it was in that moment that the full impact of the metaphoric content of the scene hit me. For here was a vision that underlined the reality of what we as a society have done: we have for all intents and purposes, albeit unavoidably, put our churches and all they stood for out on the street. While it is true that some of our old, gracious, highly symbolic old rural Nova Scotia church buildings have been “repurposed,” and their physical form will take on new function, their demeanor, their aura, their evocative spirit will change indelibly, and in that I find there is, for our rural communities, a monumental loss of something deeply important to us all.
It is hard to know where to start with this one: maybe with a nostalgic drive through our little rural hollows and hamlets and the warming, aesthetic pleasure I have derived from the presence of the tidy little white churches dotting the green countryside, and how they spoke to me as would an open armed, warm and welcoming greeting on the doorstep of a friend: this would be a good place to stop and meet some of the folk, I would think. Or if need be, I could find help. And certainly at a deep level, our churches spoke to me, based on my experience in rural community development, of the important role they played in holding our communities together: of the community dinners, of Christmas baskets, of the outreach to those in need, and the endless but socially bonding conversations that took place when people got together as they did in the old days. And of course, there was the music, some of it spectacular.
Perhaps most important though, all of these churches stood for the virtues of compassion, of forgiveness, of loving one’s neighbor, of the importance of community, and of keeping that fabric together. I must say, in the years of community work I did in a small village, churches played a vital role in stitching community fabric together. But it was one of ever diminishing impact: one could see their demise coming for years in the rising tide of gray hair in the pews.
But never mind, it is part of a national trend, and all things considered there is precious little here we can do about it, for we are, all of us, children of history, fashioned and formed from the clay of the generations before us. And the seeds of the demise of the church were planted many years ago. I explored this once when I was considering going into the ministry. And it is a fascinating, if tragic story.
Somehow over time, the simple but beautiful everyday teachings of Jesus ended up being bought and sold by the early heavenly gatekeepers: many of those precious lessons, scratched in the sand on a beach, became tangled in rhetoric, overrun with twisted brambles of myth and ritual and frightening tales of a petulant, demanding and vengeful god who could all but hurl thunderbolts if He got ticked. And then there was the added burden through the centuries of rising costs to pay for buildings, the construction of which was specifically and ironically declared irrelevant by the church’s own spiritual master. ( “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 NIV) Maybe Jesus understood something about human nature we did not.
Little wonder then that our last couple of generations, with a sea of spiritualities and diversions on the other side of a keyboard, have little or no desire to do what is required to keep these charming old buildings afloat, much less to be impassioned on a Sunday morning by anything other than a shopping trip. Our new cathedrals, after all, if we are forthright about it, are those big boxes bursting with bargains, a sales flyer for a church bulletin, and an offering plate up front.
But the big question is, what now?
Where might we find the moral and spiritual guidance, however imperfect it might have been, that came from the churches of past days? From whence the reminder of human decency that one saw from afar when approaching our little rural communities? Of the importance of compassion? Of the loving heart? Of community?
Sadly from where I sit, I do not know the answer to my own question.
But one never knows.
Maybe new churches will spring up online. Maybe congregations will buy into the idea of adaptive reuse, wherein other compatible organizations can share space and responsibilities of support. Maybe some of the old churches will be repurposed as a new kind of church with new and younger adherents and a more concise gospel, less complex, more relevant, and tailored to the longings of today’s citizens.
Maybe, maybe maybe.
But in the meantime, we should keep our eye on the ball: whatever happens we need a moral guiding light of some sort to help keep our social fabric intact and to get us across the shoals of our uncertain future.
With our churches falling away at an alarming rate, (I know of at least twenty: data is hard to get) we might do well to keep in mind in our quest for that guiding light, the uncomplicated but sweeping theology of one Rabbi Hillel who lived in Jerusalem in the days of King Herod. When a skeptical young infidel came to him, and agreed to join his church if the rabbi could explain the contents of his holy book while he stood on one foot, the young man was humbled by the answer he heard. Hillel said, in so many words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the whole book: the rest is commentary.”
They are Under the Snow, Waiting
I think there is not an living thing in the world that is not fascinating at some level. Ants are no exception. What is most fascinating about them is how successful they have been and why that may have happened.
If you think for a moment you have nothing to learn from the ants that are asleep under the snow in our backyards, think again.
For they are there in rural Nova Scotia fields in their mounds in unbelievably huge numbers…waiting, as are you and I for the first greens of spring to herald another season of sunshine and harvest.
There are not just millions of them, but trillions if not gazillions (or whatever comes numerically next) in Nova Scotia. If you don’t believe me, ask the respected biologist, E.O. Wilson. Get this: Wilson says in so many words that if you had a giant set of scales and you put all the mammals in a square km. of countryside on one side (that includes all of us, all our horses, cows, dogs, bunny rabbits, pussycats and their like), and then you took all the ants in that same square km. and put them on the other side of the scale, that the ants would outweigh us mammals by a factor of four to one. Woooo. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
There are even those in scientific circles who say that ants are so successful they are poised to inherit the earth if we as humans make too much of a mess of it. I have heard the arguments on both sides. Reason comes down in favor of the scientists: I wish it didn’t.
Why are ant societies so successful? (In scientific circles their social patterns are referred to as “eusocial” which come from the Greek, “good” and “social.”) What do these little creatures know that we don’t? As we face our uncertain future in rural Nova Scotia and the pervasive and overshadowing influence of an uncertain world, we might do well to ask this question.
I have wondered about this for a long time. As a kid I had a terrarium in my bedroom that I watched for hours on end (and a pet toad to clean up escapees.) To this day, you might find me on my hands and knees, staring at a long line of marching ants as they build an enormously complicated underground city, the grandeur of which can only bring to mind in the human sphere the great pyramids of Egypt or perhaps the Great Wall of China.
What might we learn here?
Look at them, the little miracles, carrying a gazillion grains of sand out the door or morsels of food back down the highway, each marching to the beat of some unwritten collective agreement working on a project that serves their community and provides both home and sustenance. Mind you I am not saying I would trade places with any one of them, nor am I saying, worker ants as everyone knows being female, that it would be nice to live in a world where women did all the important work: there are days when I think they already do. What I am saying is that these little critters have a few things figured. And a few things to tell us: after all, they are one of the most highly successful species on the planet.
And speaking of our planet, I recall having a thought one day that I share with you now.
What might happen, I wondered, if on a given day, we, each of us took a lesson from the ants and we picked up and carried something of import out into our world for the benefit of our community. Something that would last for generations. Something that would benefit the least of us. The best of us. The rest of us. Something for which our children would thank us in days to come.
What, I wondered, if that something were a random act of kindness? An act of love?
“What if?’ I wondered as I watched the speed with which each of these little creatures helped changed their corner of the world around them for the better.
The Bee and the Pocket Lens
Lenses have changed my life. For the better. In the extreme. Camera lenses, telescopes, microscopes: they all have stories to tell. Even my pocket lens, as demonstrated in this story where I come face to face with a honeybee.
We are surrounded by miracles large and small in the Nova Scotia countryside. Sometimes those miracles stand before us but for a number of reasons remain unseen. Generally the reason for this has to do with the fact that we as a society harbor a host of irrational perceptions and do not, as Chardin says, “see with the heart.” Perhaps we are caught up in the rush of everyday living, or we have learned more superficial definitions of beauty, or we are haunted by some childhood fear that causes us to miss a miracle that hovers right before our eyes. Such an adventure one day, not uncommon in the country, caused me to ponder these things. On the spot.
It happened when a bee flew in out of nowhere and attempted to land on my hand.
Moments before I had been standing peacefully in our garden, watching the flowers grow. My hands were wet, if that had anything to do with what happened next; I don’t really know. But there was a honey bee, on her descent (all workers are female) onto the outstretched fingers of my left hand which was hanging by my side.
My mind flashed quickly to the day when I was a small child and my father, whose car window was down had his arm struck by a bee, and who subsequently drove the car off the road, tearing off his shirt as he did so. This for me led to a fear of bees which I harbored for many years until I learned to rise above it. Easy to say. Not easy to do when a bee was ready to land on your finger.
My mind raced with the questions of a) why? And b) how to rise above the mounting fear.
Slowly, mesmerized by the bee’s descent, the desire to understand outweighed the urge to flee. So I remained in place so I might find out what the little creature had in mind, if I may express it that way.
At length the bee landed on my finger, little engines still running, and appeared to want to stay there. Why to this day I do not know.
Slowly I brought the little humming creature up and towards my eyes where I might get a better look. With my other hand I reached for the little 10 power pocket lens I always carry clipped to my belt and swung it up and around to get a better look.
I don’t know if you have ever stared into the eyes of a living bee but trust me: it is an experience you will not soon forget.
From where I stood, I could see clearly through my lens the bee’s compound eye with its many facets, each looking in a different direction and in ways apart from our own way of seeing. Heaven knows what the bee saw while looking from the opposite direction through my lens: one huge eye, I suppose, quite unlike anything it had ever seen before. (What might you think if you suddenly saw one giant eye staring down at you from the heavens?)
This ocular signal was processed by a miniscule bee brain that made decisions at lightning speed with respect to fight or flight while wings hummed, ever at the ready.
Communion with any creature from the wild world brings immediate, immense and deep insight and reward. And so there we stood: on one side of the lens, me, a member of a species who endangered this little bee and all its friends and relatives with our agricultural practices, and on the other side, the little humming insect on whom I and the rest of my species were dependent for the food that kept us alive.
My point, the product of my observations that day, is this.
On these countless little mysterious miracles that surround us in the countryside, which we witness every day, we, urban and rural alike, are totally dependent. We, you see, my little bee-friend and I, are made of the same molecular building blocks, exchanged and interwoven at a level where mystery and miracles hold sway, in a grand natural symphony in which each of us depends for our survival on the other. This single bee, for example, and all its little friends are ultimately responsible for the growth of fully one quarter of our food supply in N.S. which makes them to me, at both a practical and a spiritual level, sacred. And that is why to harm them in any way can only be seen as a desecration.
Fortunately in rural Nova Scotia there is a growing number of people who are beginning to see the world in this way.
The most beautiful thing in life we can experience is the mysterious.
May this beauty wash over you in the coming days.
A Short Course on Waving
Well let’s face it: the world is just not as friendly a place as it was a number of years ago. But that is not something about which you should worry. For there is something, small as it may be, that you can do about that.
But first things first.
Yes, maybe “Promised Land” is a bit of an overstated descriptor for life in rural N.S. But living here is, I think, as close as we will get these days. For undeniably, and relatively speaking of course, we here have much to be thankful for, high on the list being that there are plenty of worse places on this little space ship called earth where we might otherwise have found ourselves.
In this little column we will touch on a few of the reasons I feel as I do, starting with a story like this.
Ever notice how often people wave to each other in rural N.S.? Even at strangers? It is one of our most endearing habits. In my travels throughout Canada and the US, I am here to tell you that waving in rural Anywhere Else seldom happens, and if you as a visitor should take such an initiative, you would be stared at as if you just landed from Jupiter. On the other hand, we here in rural N.S. are wavers of the first water. And the smaller the community, the more likely you will spend much of your time flapping your arm at someone. Often even if you know no one in town. This gentle time-tested habit serves an important purpose.
Unlike the anonymity and fear that choke the life and the humanity out of today’s big urban centers, waving creates a sort of an unconscious bond between people and makes them feel part of a larger whole: part of community. In a world torn apart by greed and violence, a cheery wave is a reminder that gentility still has its place, and it is especially important for that reason. A wave can welcome outsiders, reinforce a friendship and can even for a short time, comfort the lonely.
From the two finger flick off the top of the steering wheel to the enthusiastic arm-out, finger-splayed frantic flap out the sunroof, we in the country wave every year thousands of times and in a thousand ways, even, often, when we are uncertain of the identity of the person at whom we are waving.
Yes. Better the wave you wave than the wave you don’t.
Try Apple River sometime, remote as it is. I went there once. Never been there in my life and it was like old home week…with me feeling like the feller that was coming home.
I loved it.
And there are signature waves: Hubert’s wave is rather like a salute. Jim flashes a victory sign. Karney’s wave looks like a blessing of the fleet. There are enthusiastic waves as delivered to a friend one has not seen in a while, and there are uncertain waves, sent out there when one is not sure if one knows the recipient or not.
Oh yes, women wave too, although I think there might be gender differences. Men, you see, tend to wave at cars, and will go on reflexively waving at a certain car for ages, even after it has been sold. Women don’t do that. And another thing: men will wave to each other in their rear view mirrors if they think they have missed someone in passing. Women, as far as I can tell from my own experience, don’t do that. I am not sure why that is but I will probably get static for saying so.
One of my favorite stories about waving, and who does and who doesn’t involves my friend Derek (roots in rural N.S.) who was passing a little time on Sable Island. Those few people who are there are often in the habit of going for long walks on the beach which is some 23 miles long.
Well, such was the story early one morning when Derek set off and was surprised to see, some two or so miles distant, another person walking, alone, towards him. The two were on a collision course for about half an hour, each with plenty of time to notice the other’s approach. And guess what happened when they were about to pass each other? Well feller number two never took his eyes off his own plodding boots the whole time and he never looked up, preparing to trudge on by.
This was too much for my friend, who stepped into this path where he could make eye contact.
Good morning,” he said. “Good Morning!”
The other chap reluctantly returned the greeting and the two began to converse.
As they prepared to part, Derek inquired, “Where is home for you?” Suffice it to say it was not rural Nova Scotia.