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Salish Sea Almanac ~ 2008

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.

A snowman

January 24
Here we are our in our new year. Campbell’s farm has the first lamb and I and many others have blooming snowdrops! It is so delighting to be back in the burgeoning part of the year. Seed catalogues are arriving in the mail and pruning is at hand. The days are discernibly longer and the early morning is beginning to have songsters—not a chorus yet in my neck of the woods but migrants are arriving back to their summer haunts.

February 7
January was certainly a weather-shifter—warmer, then colder as we move quickly through brilliant blue sky, rain, snow, hail, sleet, slush, and grey clouds propelled (or not) by wind. I like the short spurts of this-and-that all in one day. Depending on the weather, I merge a kaleidoscope of ‘could-do’ or ‘should-do’ lists—pruning, office work, general tidying and organizing inside or out. Gumboots, warm gloves, and a good-for-working-outside coat are handy by the door for the moments when those cloud holes align with the sun and a moment of spring dazzle occurs! I have loved the bird action at Winter Cove Park this fall and winter. There is a steady little raft of red-breasted mergansers—about seven females and two males plus scoters, golden eyes and mew gulls. Yesterday, a lone oyster-catcher vigorously prodded and poked its bright-red, enormous beak through the kelp bunches in the little pools, practically at my feet. The little estuaries that feed into Winter Cove are mostly frozen until they hit the lip of the regular tide-line. We are back into much lower day-time tides which makes beach wandering lots of fun. The eagles are arriving back. Last week we had a pair on the ground in the orchard locked in mating embrace, thrashing their huge wings so vigorously that they were panting and heaving. I had read that eagles mate in flight, perhaps these two crash-landed. Several of us got quite close—they were not pleased by our presence but didn’t leave until several hours later when I started the car, put on the lights. and drove off. They were startled and they flew away into the full-moon, clear night.

February 21
The birds are coming back, the nascent weeds are just pushing up propelled by vigorous roots that have garnered their strength all winter! So much is growing, little green bits on the roses, grass in coddled, sunlit places, and it won’t be long before you can read in the car as you wait to load onto the 6:30am sailing of the Mayne Queen. (This is a real turning point in the year for many Islanders!) Time to start those peas and early crops. The last couple of years I have had no success planting beans and pea-seeds directly into the soil. Every time, most have been harvested by my bird friends before they got anywhere. I have planted peas that are 6 inches tall and had the same problem—time for new strategies. What a conundrum for a bird-loving gardener! A minute ago the patio garden was bustling with birds: towhees ripping up the leaves to get to the dirt, robins listening for earthworm engines, juncos bustling about on the ground and lower branches, and the occasional fox sparrow thrown in. Then zam, the whole lot as one unit, flew up and off to safety. A sharp shinned hawk was zooming around trying to catch any one of them. Then silence, no movement, maybe a little sigh from the earthworms—whew, spared!

March 20
The grass is growing steadily and lushly at the Saturna graveyard. The first ant sashayed across my floor on a recent sunny afternoon. What I am missing are the bumblebees. I have never before had crocus blooming without bumblebees lurching around coated in yellow pollen. My hope is that I haven’t been in the right patch of sun at the right time. Campbell’s lambing flock is going reasonably well—seven sets of triplets. Triplets often need milk supplementation, so Campbells are having to buy lots of milk. Jim Campbell said the funniest occurrence was that late one evening a ewe gave birth to a nice big, solid single lamb—very commendable. The next morning it became apparent that she wasn’t finished with just that accomplishment—she had delivered a lively set of twins to join the single! The eagles are back at our pond and I hope they reactivate the nest they used two years ago. There is a raven couple hanging around. It has been about four years since we had a pair raise babies. Despite all the horrid squawking from the starving nestlings at 4am, I have missed seeing the parents going on feeding forays and teaching the young to fly. Nettles are back on our plates for spring greens and the garden has lots of salad makings to offer. I saved a whole bunch of edible pod peas from the fall and I am seeding some of them for planting and lots for eating as sprouts.

April 3
This morning, March 28, I was going to work in the garden—just a bit here and there, little of this, little of that, pat the flowers, nip some weeds, ponder and appreciate. Instead, delighted, I watched big fat snowflakes twirl and plop into mush on the unfrozen ground. Spring flakes on daffodils; picking up the scarlet color on the hummingbirds’ favoured flowering red currant bush; making the grass look ever so much more green. Easter Sunday night we had an hour-long blast of south-west wind that kept the electricity bouncing on-and-off and branches whipping and flying everywhere. A medium sized arbutus cracked at the base with the unusual wind direction, landed on the road and quickly into the woodshed. Yesterday, in the late afternoon the sun came to a dark end, the sky went black in the west and a couple of rolls of thunder preceded a hail storm. I find all of this radical weather shifting fun and interesting. It will be short -lived, and really I know we are on the way to spring.

April 17
We have a glut of daffodils. The peak of production—you can pick all you want and you are past, ‘Oh look—a daffodil!’ The gorgeousness of spring is this cycle of surprise, novelty and satiation. Micro-organisms begin to flourish, and everything that we joy in sprouts and jumps into the air. Coming home from the Saturna Community Club meeting (way too late at night) we heard the spring uproar of the frogs through the closed car windows from Money’s cow pond! All of the fall and late summer plantings of lettuces, kale, chard, and purple sprouting broccoli are feeding us well. Right now miners lettuce and nettles are still delicious and a welcome wild addition to the table. The salmon berries are blooming away and the male hummingbirds are roaring and rattling around. The turkey vultures are soaring in sky, blue then grey—they must be getting well-soaked in the spring rain bursts.

May 1
Does Spring look good clad in snow? The odd, quaint hail/flurry adds a spice to the bursting green—but a week of sloppy cold? I am pacified, mostly, by the continuing unfolding of vegetation, the return of migrants and their fascinating behaviors to ensure proliferation.

May 15
The grass is growing by the inch. The lettuce and peas and all the green garden leafy—so good for you—veggies are thriving in the rain, cloud-cover and spells of sunshine. Tulips in a fantastic range of colour are suspended above the garden greenery. Lambs are growing plump and bouncy with all the grass and rich milk provided by their constantly grazing moms. Tomatoes and peppers are still huddling in the greenhouse awaiting a little more sustained heat from the sun before they swing into lush growth. This is the big two weeks for pollination for my fruit trees. The plums are a haze of white, and so are the wild bitter cherries. The pears and apples are just bursting bud. Bring on the sun and the feeding, flitting buzzies!

May 29
Of all the plants that grow in the verdant month of May, pasture is of critical interest to many Islanders. In May, on the Gulf Islands, the grass really begins to grow dense and lush, full of protein and sheep-growing nutrients. The lambs are thriving, beginning to put on weight—still nursing and foraging on their own too. Rick and Beth Jones have a flock of about 54 and the Campbells have about 200, including lambs, ewes and rams. European Gulf Islanders have raised sheep in the Gulf Islands since the first land pre-emptions in the 1860s. Most immigrants came from sheep-raising regions of Wales, England and Scotland. According to the Gulf Islands Patchwork, as there were few natural predators, bands of sheep were left to roam and then culled in the early summer and fall. Islanders got ‘$4 for earlies, and later the price dropped to $2.50 each.’ About 138 years later, the Campbells can count on about $200 for a butchered lamb.

June 12
Around the garden there are lots of fledglings making their first independent forays. Two days ago I had a young pine siskin landed practically on my foot as I was shoveling! Upon landing it started hopping about picking up bits from the soil litter, looking up at me occasionally and eventually walking off under the lettuce. Each bird specie seems to have its safe-distance from humans (unless they are thoroughly distracted by mating ecstasies). This fledgling must have not been listening when that lecture came round! Young hummingbirds, recognizable by their stubbly tails, and wobbly flights, are also exhibiting what constitutes questionable hummingbird behavior. These delightful encounters provide insights into learned behaviors. We have lots of fawns around in this last week, polka-dotted tiny babies and thin-sided moms. On Narvaez Bay Road there was a mother grouse with two puffball chicks. Ten minutes later in the vicinity, I saw a raven slide away down the bank and my heart sank—I do love ravens but I would like more grouse!

June 26
Saturna is a lush savannah this June. ‘Junuary’ is a term the locals have coined. The every-second-day rains and the cool cloudiness have produced forests of opulent grass and 6-foot high nettle reefs. Island driving is a little harrowing because only the tall deer with antlers stand high enough up in the grass to be seen, and who knows what suicidal short deer is lurking ready to launch the big getaway directly in front of your car. Despite the threat of deer impact, driving, walking, running and biking are a pleasure on Island roads at this time of year, with huge stands of oxeye daisies and foxgloves at artistic intervals. Both are recent additions to the landscape; introduced from Europe 160 years ago in the 1850s. We hate broom but love our foxgloves—you never hear about community and Parks Canada sponsored ‘foxglove pulls’! Everyone has a vase full of the huge arched sprays of cream to deep purple and every kid knows that if you pick off the blooms and put them on each finger—violá you are transformed into a vampire monster or perhaps an elegant lady. The Latin name for ours is Digitalis purpurea purpurea meaning purple fingers. Curiously, foxglove, in Anglo-Saxon was ‘foxes-gliew’—a ‘gliew’ was a ring of bells hung on an arched support. All the early berries are ripening—wild strawberries, salmon berries and thimbleberries. According to Tsawout elder Earl Claxton, its the song of Swainson’s thrush—returned from South America—that puts the ripening colour into the berries.

July 10
We had our first stretch of hot days at the tail end of June. Ice cream sales shot up, lots of boats appeared at the government wharf, and Islanders were seen without jackets or ‘just in case’ cover-ups. In the heat, we trade the usually very active time slots of 11am–2 pm for 5am–noon and the evening goes on and on forever. The dogs seek out the dampest, darkest places and only have the energy to bark in a token manner. The tomatoes jump up about a foot each day. All of our children, their partners and their kids visited us the weekend before the Lamb BBQ, and we made full use of the warm sunlit evenings to loll about, talk and have adventures with the grandchildren. While we lolled, Jacques Campbell and her hay crew, consisting of two Woofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), family members, and various willing assorteds, cut, raked, baled, hauled and stored tons of hay for the sheep and cattle for next winter/early spring. The hot days and winds dried the hay in record time which makes for superior hay that maintains high protein content and has little mildew. We have had a grand amount of swallowtail butterflies this early summer. They waft their gorgeous coloured wings about the garden regularly and get jammed into the open greenhouse roof and require liberation.
In my young life when schooling was mandatory, I remember reading that in medieval times people thought that rain in barrels created worms. Medieval people, being both brighter and stupider than we are, were onto solving a generation ‘mystery’. While I know the rainbarrel and worm connection process is way wrong, I had no reasonable explanation for blackflies on Saturna Island. I was startled and dismayed to find them biting me in the evening warmth of the hottest day. Did some new-to-the-Island person import them because they missed getting eaten alive from their old home place? Did the blackflies drop off of seaplane landing pontoons, or could they incubate for the 30 years I haven’t seen them while waiting for this hot weather? The medievals probably had a plausible theory for this out-of-nowhere phenomena! I can only hope that brown bats and swallows love to eat them. Spirea bushes are just bursting into flower all over the Islands. They smell spicy and their white creamy sprays make a vivid contrast with blue ocean and the solid green of conifers. Look closely on sunny outcroppings and you will see yerba buena, a lemon-scented vine, blooming. The mossy north-facing road-cuts are filled with the trailing, slender vines and upright fragrant pink bells of twinflower. Twin flower is great for sniffing and yerba buena makes a lovely fragrant tea used by First Nations and the Spanish explorers.

July 24
Travelling on the ferry, you notice our Islands have turned from soft-green to crisp-gold in the last two weeks. The gold land, green trees, vivid blue sky and sunlight and shadow provide more contrast; vari-coloured human habitations stand out much more. Winter’s softer colour scheme—evergreen, rain, low cloud, and grey ocean is forgotten. Grasses, stiff from dryness, have prickly seed heads, full of reproductive potential. Willing to travel great distances for a new beginning, they stick to your socks and trouser bottoms! Island cars are coated with layers of dust. If we clean them, we locate carwashing efforts where we want the grass watered. Island gardens are full of lettuce and ripe peas. Summer’s prima donnas—tomato, basil peppers, and corn are growing by leaps and bounds. Zucchinis are full of flowers and the first ones are ready to eat! Under the orchard canopy tiny plums and apples and pears litter the ground, the summer fruit drop is occurring in trees that are promising good crops. Obviously, there were some spring pollinators advancing our fruit consumption possibilities, whew!

August 7
The end of July’s days of cool rain and cloud has been a good contrast to the long run of warmth and light from dawn to dusk. I have so easily forgotten about my patterns in my rainy winter life! The deer are thirsty and covet any juicy new garden growth they can get their little muzzles around—anything you water they love to eat! Shut the gate, mend the fences. Some of the garden plants look decidedly tatty, all of the spring and early summer growth needs pruning and trimming back. It’s hard to think that this is the time to plant for winter while most of the summer vegetables are being harvested. The chickens are moulting, their feathers look as messy and tatty as parts of the garden. Early mornings are so quiet, no more choruses as the wildbirds are lying low and growing their flight feathers. Some have a long way to migrate when these new feathers are in place.

August 21
Islanders are reporting that mice are everywhere. This must be some boom year for the critters. Pea, beans and corn seeds are impossible to plant in gardens because they dig them up and eat them. You plant and then wait and wait. Finally, you dig around to discover no sign of what must be one of the biggest domesticated seeds going—a huge scarlet runner been seed has disappeared! Initially it seemed those smart robins were the culprits, but when I finally set a trap the puzzle was solved. (Here at Haggis Farm we bait mousetraps with high-quality, freshly ground, organic peanut butter with a chunk of sticky date.) Not even the starter plants in greenhouses are immune to those deft, quick paws. But wire mesh works fine to cover the pots of sugar-snap peas and pole and bush beans. I’m kind of tempted to do studies on the mice since they present themselves so readily. Weight, length, male/female, coat colour, feeding habits—kind of fun—but summer is a busy time, and it is peas and beans I want—not wildlife studies!

September 4
It’s been raining in mid-August! Not just a cheerful daytime downpour that makes us all feel secure that the groundwater is recharging but rain that brings thoughts of grey winter days and gets you to light the fire to feel cozy! The pasture is responding by leaping to green life. My family members who have traveled from the blazing-hot southern United States are interested in the novelty of Pacific Northwest rain. I am ready for blue skies! Two trucks and about six guys came over to paint us a schoolbus-yellow line down the middle of our winding, narrow Island roads. The line is so bright, so new. Cheerfully exuberant where the paint applicator bounced over the potholes in the middle of the road, leaving grand squiggles!

September 18
The pileated woodpeckers have come to the orchard once or twice and left. Obviously reaching the same conclusion I have—‘Not ripe!’ I am waiting for the figs, plums and pears to ripen. Everything in my garden and orchard is behind. We had a slow, cold start in May and June. From records kept for the last twenty years, the average minimum temperature in July was well below normal. My garden ‘calendar’ is just as much about events, length of days, and what activities I am doing. Well before Labour Day, the prolific purple plum trees are picked by summer-Islander friends and our off-Island friends. This year, they have all gone home to their urban lives plumless! ‘Are the figs ripe yet?’ ‘Not yet!’ The fig trees have an ardent following among our friends and Jon loves fig trifle for his birthday. We will just have enough coming on to meet this birthday tradition—usually it is a race to keep them in good condition in the cooler. Now, with the daylight hours rapidly shortening and the nights being cooler, ripening really slows down. These sun-filled September days are great but shorter and the sun at a much lower angle. Brilliant stars now fill the early morning hours that were so recently filled with sunrise. This spate of sunny days allows for lots of time to rearrange garden beds, plant early spring crops and loll around and soak up the light into your bones. Redshafted flickers, and varied thrush are now along the roadsides.

October 2
Summer is folding into fall. Lots of soggy, wet sheep and their allies, the turkeys and the chickens, are ganging up on the apple trees to bring down the ripening fruit. We all hear rustle, rustle, rustle as the boughs jump up and down under the weight of a 15lb turkey and then klonk, klonk, klonk as apples rain onto the ground. The waiting team below is instantly barging for first place and either protecting or running off with their apple prizes. Thanksgiving dinner is fast approaching and a big, dark turkey is my fantasy for the centerpiece—and a few for the freezer!

October 16
Our first power outage of the season on October 7! Our home is sheltered from the south-southwest blow and we hardly knew it was happening—but lots of islanders did. The road down to the ferry dock is cinnamon brown and green and smells wonderful adorned with all the tree cones and branches blown out of the firs and cedars. A friend was entertained/horrified by watching the transformer pole attached to the hydro power engulfed in a firework show, shooting out a cloud of turquoise sparks. This is the power line that comes underwater from Pender and reaches land at Breezy Bay. In the light of day it is quite charred! The Mayne Queen was late for Saturna’s 6:30am departure because she stopped at Pender to adjusted the ramp with ship-to-shore power so that the Queen of Nanaimo could get in to pick up Pender’s Vancouver-bound traffic. In the power out, people got a chance to shake-down their generators, remember where coffee can still be found on the Island, and to think about battery-powered radios. This is early for the reminder but the weather was better for these tasks than doing an initial run-through during snow! We had one extraordinarily warm rainy day and night last week. It was about 16ºC (60ºF). Rough skinned newts were out on Narvaez Bay Road making their death defying crossing. Death defying, not because there is a lot of traffic but because it takes them so long. In the hours of the traverse there is likely to be at least one car with four chances to end the migration in tragedy! In the evening, when it was still raining, there was hop- hopping Pacific tree frogs outlined in the car lights—for some reason I find their method of mobility very funny! Not one of the larger red-legged frogs was to be seen.

October 30
All over the Gulf Islands the big leaf maples are lit up like torches all day! This year they are spectacular—solid yellow—hardly a leaf has dropped. We had such a regular pattern of rain during the late summer and early fall that the leaves are still well glued-on. I keep mowing the lawn because the grass is hardly daunted by temperature—only by the much shorter hours of daylight. Last weekend in the early afternoon sunlight we harvested 14 banana-boxes of apples from our two venerable King apple trees. This quantity doesn’t account for the sheep harvest—any a good ballerina-pirouetting sheep can reach, or an agile tree-climbing turkey can knock down or a pileated woodpecker can peck out. This is a medium to good harvest for these two trees. Kings are an old variety originating in New York state and were much planted around here. Their skins are waxy-greasy and the apples will be good eating quality into May in the bakery’s cold room. We didn’t realize when we bought our place what an asset the old orchard would be to our lives. Fall on the farm can be a time of hard choices. In the cycle of years you generally live longer than beloved members of your animal family. As their infirmities begin to infringe on their everyday life you wonder if it is worth getting them through the cold rain, puddles, ice and snow. With old bones and joints, hard of hearing, limited vision or blind, the animals don’t talk and you are left with your best judgement guided by your rational brain and your emotional self as to whether to keep them going. The Saturna Christmas bird count is on December 13 this year, Steve Dunsmuir is our coordinator.

November 13
Rivulets and puddles, streams, cascades of water off the roofs jumping the gutters—anything not on an incline is holding water—what a rain! When I opened the small door to the chicken house, chickens began to pour out as usual, but once the lead chickens figured out that they were getting soaked they made a tight U-turn right into their on-coming flock mates. The dogs were frantic to get in. Despite knowing that scratching on the front door is verboten, they risked it anyway.

December 11
This arctic outflow made Christmas very different for us all. 2008 ended with memorable Christmas and New Year frivolities amidst snowbanks, snow shovels, and snow ploughs! Three new words need to be added to our west coast experience, snow-light, snow-joy and ice-terror! The vast quantities of snow and cold made a new world of reflected light, new possibilities for delightful fun, and a need to adjust time frames and expectations. We have some snow every winter or two; enough snow that everyone has a snow shovel somewhere and a suit or two that can be cobbled together out of skiing attire or an extreme layering technique—but a month of now apparel and a week-and-a-half of wind chill protection was a stretch! Animals were dependent on our ability to provide fodder and feed and shelter and those of us who regularly forage out of winter gardens came to the reality of wrapped and stickered food for all meals. Conversation in the stores and café were about all-season tires versus snow tires, winter tires, all-wheel drive, 4-wheel drive and—the weather! Easy ability to transport ourselves wherever we desire, when we desire, was thwarted. The challenge of new solutions or new attitudes was refreshing. Saturna immigrants from anywhere east of Hope were in their element as they powered their cars and trucks along the ice-rutted slippery roads, encapsulated between high snow banks. We had a lone snowboarder cutting through the frothy snow all the way from Mount Fisher to Payne Road. Some were skiing, others sledding and snowperson building. I got lessons from an Ontario man as to how to use a snow shovel—a snow shovel is not a garden shovel, push it along don’t dig it in! The plough was a familiar and welcome sight day and night during the worst of it, chains clanking, lights reflecting off the snow as the plough shot plumes of snow to the side of the road. We could count on the ferry hill and the missing link to be ploughed twice daily.


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