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Unique newspaper coverage of local, regional and global topics - serious and light-hearted.

Salish Sea Almanac ~ 2007

A collection of episodes about life on an island farm - the first section of Priscilla Ewbank's Saturna Notes column is our longest running feature and a must read for everyone who loves the Gulf Islands.

Two Border Collies

January 25
While headlines from afar about our local weather seem like overkill, recent windstorms were exceptional. We have not yet cleared up the damage. Gumboots get cold fast and if the snow is deep enough a little rooster tail action develops with each footfall that fills your boots with snow. My eldest daughter, Genni, and her family came down from Prince George to spend Christmas and ended up having an extended stay. Tobogganing and sledding down Haggis Hill became quite an entertainment—funny that they would come from the Interior and sled on the Gulf Islands! Pruning and growing plants are big on my mind, even though the sun just skims the horizon, lacing through trees, leaving most of the sky untravelled. I try to remember, though, each day is illuminated for a little longer.

February 8
Happy Snowdrop blossoms to you! Within my winter-fatigued garden, frosty leaf-brown and white, are several areas bright with green strap leaves and little white blossoms. Right now, they are the most noticeable and appreciated plant messengers that spring is coming! The days are longer—the change is happening so quickly that I find my timing is off when I check my watch—it’s 5:30pm, not 4:30pm, before the day shuts down, even with fog and full cloud-cover. This light sparks a little excitement, fantasies of doing this and that, memories of warmth and long days of light, filled with colour and growth.

February 22
Daffodils are just about to burst out of their green buds and into blossom. The Campbells and the Jones have lambs. The grass is looking sturdy and filling in. Sam Peramaki has garlic plants six inches high and the mud is getting good and gushy! Islander Jane Dixon-Warren took the train from Winnipeg to Churchill with her granddaughter to see the Northern lights and the constellations and maybe a polar bear. She reports that with wind-chill the temperature is -50ºC. Mercy! Bearing that fact in mind, mud looks appealing.

March 8
The vegetables in my pantry are announcing ‘Spring is Here!’ The onions are a bit punky with green shoots in the middle, the carrots are going hairy, and the potatoes are growing eyes. The vegetables are turning into roots and are no longer content to be major players at cooking events! Designed to meet the family’s nutritional needs, lounging in the pantry our vegetables can no longer be dissuaded from primal functions. They remember dirt and warm sunlight and rain. And gardeners rejoice as they also turn towards the sun and start to plant and tend arrays of vegetables and flowers to feed and delight themselves again. All the signs of spring are so welcome. The birds are starting the morning chorus, the weeds are looking rambunctious and ambitious, and those unbelievably yellow daffodils, growing without tending, are bobbing in the rain and snowy winds. Extreme high and low tides are occurring during the day, fun to watch.

March 22
Wednesday, March 14th at noon, I am basking in the sun, no clouds, a light wind, and all the night frost melted away. This is the ticket! I am smiling. Our black Border collie is lolling on the stone patio, the 34-year-old pony with her just-starting-to-shed, white coat is dozing, facing right into the sun with a slowly twitching tail…just delightful. When you get that sunny day you have to spring into action, garden tools at the ready. Early March was rain-soaked. Just last Sunday it rained so hard all day and evening some of the daffodils were waterlogged and were arching down to the green grass. All of the people who have bought storage tanks to augment their summer water supply from roof catchment systems have long since filled them to overflowing.

May 3
Oh, I love this time of year! Rain is warm, peas, lettuce and potatoes are sprouting, growing in the wet, warm earth and the days go on and on. The apple blossoms have suddenly emerged among the lime green leaves. Palest pink and sweet-scented, the blossoms are only for a moment at their peak—next moment they might decorate a spring wind. Hopefully the petals and scent have attracted hungry pollinators, who get lunch immediately, and come fall we get apples! Mud coats the sides and underneath of cars; cedar and alder pollen covers the top. The hummingbirds are at their most gorgeous selves as the males perform their aerial dances. Lots of entertainment around these days—everyone wants to do a little something outside in the light and warmth!

May 17
It’s a riot out there! All the summer migrants have arrived for the big party—vultures, swallows, and red-winged black birds. Every blooming thing is somewhere in the cycle of bursting, blossoming and seed making. Ta-da—spring! Dawn to sunset is about 16 hours of light.

May 31
The amount of green plant mass being pushed out of the ground and into the sunlight at this time of year is mind-boggling! The little patch of meadow in front of the house that I keep mowed is ready to be mown, again. Trees are putting on a tremendous burst of flowering, as well as new growth. All this causes some Islanders to dream of going to the desert or being on a boat in the middle of the ocean as their heads are perpetually clogged in reaction to all the spores and pollens. There are roses out everywhere, from tight bud to lovely smelling flower. Something I like about May-flowering plants, is that you get to have the blooms early and then the burgeoning leaf growth takes care of any dead-heading you might have to do! Several young, yellow-crowned sparrows are using the garden as a flight training ground. They have short spiky tails for rudders that cause them no end of trouble as they flap erratically from one gate to another pole or simply run under the bushes. This year, pine siskins and American goldfinches are in abundance at the birdfeeder. A joyous buzz emanates from all the blooming lavender bushes. The Island has so many kinds of local bees. It is fun to watch them collecting pollen and nectar—when they are working some small bush so that you can closely examine their activity. We have had some wonderfully low tides in the afternoons uncovering an unrivalled place for discovery and entertainment

June 14
Suddenly there are baby garter snakes slithering and sleeping all over the warm spots in my garden—what an array of coloured stripes. I like garter snakes and they like the rock walls that form all the flowerbeds. Slugs evidently don’t like garter snakes as there are none anymore.

June 28
There’s still light in the sky at 10pm, warmth for bare feet, and hardly any need to remember where your flashlight is!

July 26
The young barn swallows with their long scissor tails are fledged from their pottery-cup nests and are foraging on their own. My favourite interval is when the nestlings peer over the nest and all their gigantic mouths open in unison as a parent flies in with a meal. Right now, ours perch on a two-by-four at night, still a set of four. There must also be a barred owl nest very close by as two owlets are being instructed in flying and dinner-catching just at the darkest part of the evening, 10pm or so. The parents fly around them, completely silent. The babies screech and yell, make short feints to something resembling a perch, wobbling and clutching they hang on and then repeat the process. Last year four owlets were fledged.

August 9
We’re in the heart of summer. Sunshine is the default weather, at last. People are in vacation mode: hiking, boating, swimming, biking and lolling about. There are plenty of sunny leisure opportunities; you could swim today, tomorrow or sometime next week. Blackberries are still ahead; the rellies are eager to come and bask in nature at your house; having a ferry reservation is more than advisable; and there might be a lineup at the store! (Full-time Islanders will try to recall this beguiling time when there is snow on the ground, the power is out, the ferry needs ship-to-shore power, the roads are icy and the Hydro repair crew are greeted like long-lost friends!)

August 23
August seems to fly by, while June and July are languid and easy! Jam! Jelly! Pies! This is the season for harvests wild and harvests cultivated. Kids and ladies with pails and purple-pricked fingers are wandering dusty lanes and reaching and reaching for that best blackberry. Humans are long-time berry pickers and eaters. Some little part of our brain probably lights up as we spy a ripe luscious black salal, salmon or blueberry!

September 6
These last few days have been such a lovely part of summer. The warmth doesn’t really kick-in until early afternoon because the sun rises later but light is soft and shadows longer. Lots of migrant birds have been moving through, with unfamiliar songs, calls and flight patterns. The garden was busy with small birds for a while which attracted the attention of a small hawk, a wonder at hunting the birds. Then prey and predator moved on. The swallows are completely gone and I miss their mosquito hunting skills—their snack, my aggravation! This year I saw none of the orange and black butterflies that follow the swallowtails.

September 20
The Island is very dry. The sunshine is marvellous coupled with cool nights for sleeping. The stars have been brilliant with several prominent planets visible at dawn—which is now coming as late as 6am. Papery Arbutus bark is dropping to the ground and makes soft crinkling sounds as it dries in the sunny afternoon warmth. The two old plum trees that came with the farm have hundreds of pounds of fruit on them this year but our apple crop is sparse. Long ago, I asked Lorraine Campbell what the old orchard plums are called after seeing them in the orchards of abandoned homesteads, She said, ‘everyone just calls them Island Plums!’ So that is what we call them. In contrast with previous years, the yield on the fancy pears that we planted back in 1982 is positively negligible and they are going to require only one box each for picking. It’s the same story for the new plums. We have had a little standing army of crossbills and siskins that moved in when the figs were ripening. Their funny, crossed bills, which are so useful for getting the seeds out of fir cones, seem to be a demanding adaptation. To my surprise they are in no way hindered with their specialized bills when it comes to eating fresh figs!

October 4
Fall has the most noticeable seasonal shift. Such a change—there are my clothes of two weeks ago, worn in summer sunshine waiting to be packed away. You get dressed in the morning in suitable clothing for the temperature and by noon you are peeling off, or chunking-up on insulation. Weather reports are of much more interest if you are putting off digging the potatoes. Will you actually do it tomorrow if it’s raining? All manner of moist beasts are croaking, slithering and munching on garden fare. Those longer nights with buckets of dew turn the basil black and the last straggling strawberries turn hairy at the bottom with mildew. The sheep field has an early sprinkling of meadow mushrooms and puffballs. Mushroom aficionados are picking chanterelles and other culinary exotics. The mice are on the move, ready to over winter with us—no thanks! Mouse-trapping is a fine art and takes determination and a certain gulp in the throat as the victim rejoins the great outdoors—as compost. We are raisin and fresh-ground peanut butter baiters (cheese also has its fierce adherents). At least a good tidbit comes before the quick, grisly end; carpenter ants get no such consideration!

October 18
Fall it is—leaves are falling, night is falling, rain also! There have been the most wonderfully variegated bottlebrush caterpillars steaming around on their many stumpy legs. Every fall I vow to photograph them and educate myself as to what they look like when they make the transformation from crawler to wings and what their formal names are—next year! The orb weaver spiders have intricate nets placed in areas of high air-flow wherever they can also solidly anchor their guy lines. The females are the spinners and when filled with eggs they are a sight to behold—a bulging patterned bag with skinny legs which moves lightening fast or sits brooding—fascinating and repulsive! A week or so ago, the first little gang of juncos pulled in from who-knows-where and are busily doing junco things round about the house. Visiting Boat Passage, we saw about 500 surf scoters on the Georgia Strait side of the journey. It was hugely exciting to see that much wildlife riding the current, shifting about in groups and clumps—and so silent! Robins now line our road in the early morning and, in one particular spot, the rough skinned newts make their perilous crossing from one sedgy verge to the other. The newts—tiny, cold dinosaurs—are the celebrities of my grandchildren’s daily walk to the store. One of the favourite parts of Thanksgiving is the time taken to be with my youngsters and ‘browse’ along paths and roads. We are engaged in collecting all the gold leaves you could possibly want, stirring puddles, touching the world surrounding our lives, moving from one intrigue to the next.

November 1
All these gold leaves are the last huzzah before the cold sog of winter arrives. There is always a little ‘bad attitude’ on my part about a winter coming on—surly you might say! After the equinox so much of 24/7 is dark—sunrise is already at about 8am! I am surprised each year how quickly the light fades.

November 15
In the wee hours of Monday, November 12, Saturna Island recorded the highest wind gust speed in the province—135 kph. The trees were twirling like pinwheels. By 5:30am, the power was off. When I opened the chicken-house door later in the morning, the chickens said, ‘No thanks! Maybe later.’ Fire Chief John Wiznuk telephoned local firefighters to survey roads around where they each live for treefalls and downed live powerlines. That way, marker pylons were quickly in place. When BC Hydro arrived, the fire department already had a list of the damage. This was placed at the General Store for other community members to add anything they had seen. Amazingly enough, considering the wide-ranging damage, many of us were back on the grid within 12 hours. But, as on other Islands, certain sectors were out for up to three days.

November 29
Saturna Island has a time-honoured trick for the perfect Christmas tree. This originated, I think, at Breezy Bay’s Big House. If you have a tree that is less than beautiful, drill holes and plug in extra branches from the stump of your tree or another donor tree. Angle and size are important but perfection arrives with experience. I find this takes the Christmas tree project to a new level!

December 13
At Haggis, we have moved into winter mode—shoes off in the house and a restricted muddy-paw zone. We have water all over the Island—stationary and flowing. With the copious rain, wooden decks and steps are treacherously slick with algae growth. The dogs are delighted with all the new forms of dog-watering bowls and everyone can wash their car to their heart’s content! The planet Venus accompanies the last quarter of the moon in the very early dawn—6am or so. It is gorgeous. Do you realize it is only a few days until the Solstice? Then the days start getting longer!


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