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Salish Sea Almanac ~ 2010

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.

Horses and Chickens on the Farm

January 21
Happy New Year! We have before us another cycle around the sun with luck and love to inspire us! This is an El Niño year and the outlook is rain, compared to last year when snow was our experience. It is hard to conjure up the experience of a summer water shortage at this point in the winter. Storage of the great bounty of water we are blessed with in winter is key to seeing ourselves luxuriously through the sunshine of summer. Since Solstice, December 21, we have gained two minutes earlier on the dawn and 21 minutes longer before sunset. The urge to garden and prune and be out and about increases with the lengthening daylight. The green is becoming vertical as the nettles and snowdrops push up and the grass in the pasture starts to grow.

February 4
For the last week and a half, the weather has been gorgeous—soft and warm. Nights are still long and the heat from the woodstove feels divine and luxurious in the evening. Filling in empty, new calendars with birthday dates of family and friends and wondering what will fill those white squares through 2010, planned and unplanned, is a pleasant task. Starring in our garden are big white snowdrops blooming like crazy. In January, most Garden Centres are closed and their signs say ‘See you in February!’ However on January 25, Robbie Burns Day, I was in town and decided to stop by a gardening shop—the place was crowded! Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had thought, ‘Hey, what about planting some chervil outside in the garden and some cilantro in the greenhouse?’

February 18
While pruning in the planters at the General Store this week I noticed that the long-awaited new postal boxes had arrived and were being installed. We are up 24 boxes to 215. The local joke used to be: ‘Who has to die before I can get my own box?’ The critical advantage to having your own box is that you can get your mail at anytime, as long as you have your key on you, while non-boxers use counter-accessed general delivery. The smaller number of large capacity postboxes makes them an even more coveted item. Postmistress Flora House says that everyone is settled now; there will be no more additions only shuffles! Through Flora’s efforts, Canada Post has donated the old post boxes to Saturna’s Haiti Relief fundraising, where they brought in close to $100!

March 4
The end of February was ablaze with sunshine and warm temperatures. It was like a benediction. There are all kinds of birds everywhere and the morning chorus was in full song well before the sun came up. Our garden is in bud! Inspired by the light and warmth and the brawny arms of offspring, their partners and friends, we pruned the orchard, burned the trimmings, cleaned the greenhouse out, pruned the roses and turned over the soil in the gardens. This is the season when all the gardening books say don’t be daunted by all the grey clouds, just get out there in your gumboots and heavy gloves and turn over the soil (mud) and get the jump on those weeds and the pruning! This is not my kind of gardening but this year I got it all—pre-emptive early gardening in the company of birds and flooded with sun! We had so little freezing this winter that we harvested a small amount of cherry tomatoes, red peppers and basil while clearing out all last season’s plants from the greenhouse. The urge to garden and dither with the violets or meticulously weed the stone patio was great—but getting the big chores done created a great sense of peace and order! I did just tuck in a few little seeds into some pots in the greenhouse—should be up any day!

April 1
Daylight saving time’s longer afternoons give a boost to the rapidly lengthening days. It feels like a new world as hail, rain and sun bounce around the sky and spring critters appear. Our migrants’ return is also heartening. Zip! Tzeet! Tzeet! Finally a hummingbird has arrived at the farm and found our rampantly blooming redcurrant. Because of our early spring, I was getting worried that the hummingbirds’ return and the blossoms’ nectar weren’t going to coincide this year! Violet-green swallows have been swooping around the house in the very early morning and the brown bats are out of hibernation and have the late evening patrol. A laying-hen carcass, lugged out to the closest sidehill, attracted the first two turkey vultures I have seen this year. By the next day fluff and feathers were all that remained. Narvaez Bay Road has a mother grouse that I just caught out of the corner of my eye while driving by; last year I saw her in the exact same bend in the road with six hatched chicks.

April 15
Easter weekend just about blew the Easter Bunny off the map! Mercy! Some wind is exhilarating and some plain scary. Good Friday morning, walking up to the house from the bakery, the wind was roaring and a huge fir bough slowly cracked and dropped in the place where my feet had been. The prickles on my neck took a little time to smooth out! Our kids were driving down from Kelowna and arrived at Tsawwassen several hours early to catch an afternoon sailing. They waited until 7:30pm, catching the Queen of Nanaimo, which had struggled across Georgia Strait. Due to the wind and seas, the ship had to take a circuitous route across the turbulent Strait. All passengers were advised to find a seat and stay seated—tough for a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old. Initially, the captain came on the PA talking about the ship’s ‘schedule.’ He corrected himself and said, ‘We are aiming to accommodate the most amount of passengers and get you home as soon as possible!’ Saturna passengers would transfer to the Mayne Queen—either at Sturdies Bay or Village Bay—the particular port could not be announced until the last minute. With all the juggling of ships and ports within the Southern Islands (Routes, 9, 5 and 5A are the most complicated part of the ferry system), keeping the system intact was a minute-by-minute decision. Finally at 11:30pm, our company walked in the door, weary and joyous to be with us at last! With the recent power outages, I have had to revive our winter protocols. Even though we were forewarned of Good Friday’s gale, we had failed to grind coffee or make morning porridge while the power was still on. Over Easter, the grandkids loved snuffing out candles and being in the soft candlelight glow.

April 29
Spring! We are in the midst of tree blossom, bees and long warm evenings. Suddenly it is 8pm and, if I am going to get to bed early, I had better get started! I love going to bed in the soft dusk light and waking up in the dawn with all the birds carrying on—ready to go, dawn to dusk! Every human endeavor, every challenging situation, is buoyed up by spring and love.

May 13
The Jones’ flock of sheep has arrived at Haggis Farm for their annual summer vacation. The grass has been growing like crazy—possessed with the very might of Mother Nature. The dishes may not be done, but having the few pieces of ‘lawn’ directly surrounding the house, with their brilliantly green-hued blades, mowed to a uniform height, is balm to my soul! The rest is meadow-fodder for the sheep, chickens, Canada geese, deer, mice, and turkeys. I salute the billions of soil microbes, mushroom spores, bugs, seeds and grand animators of life at work that I can’t even fathom! The barn swallows are finally back, long after the violet green swallows arrived. Derm’s Repair garage/barn is lively with nest building and refurbishing, and Chuck Crowley has bread pan starter kits for the swallows in his workshop. Barn swallow homes have been constructed at the Fog Alarm Building and the ball field storage shed as they have been upgraded—I’m glad they have some alternatives for raising young.

May 27
May is the best month! Every living thing is going full-bore, including the length of sunlit days—and we still have three weeks into June before they are at their longest! The rain is quite bearable, you can see it is watering the pastures and keeping the forests and moss lush. Rain or shine, even the sheep are taking off their winter woollies and getting shorn this week on Saturna. Wet wool absorbs and sheds an astounding amount of water—sheep have little drip lines off their sides if the weather is really wet.

June 30
Black slugs, tan banana slugs, and funny-looking blends of the two are emboldened by the prolonged rain showers we have had for the last week or so. This is their kind of weather, producing their kind of landscape—saturated and slitherable! I have rules about slugs and I have restricted access areas—anywhere outside, except in the garden or greenhouse. Indigenous banana slugs are transported to ‘safe areas’; non-native black slugs are offed on the spot. What is super-abundant in one geographic area can be rare in another. Jon and I took a week off and went by diverse side roads up to Kelowna and environs. No slugs! However pine siskins, less common and interesting on the coast, are much less attractive when they mob birdfeeders in Lumby!

June 24
Using Environment Canada’s Gulf Islands weather forecasts (from the weather station at Saturna Island) has been hopeless lately! I generally look to see what the icons are. A sweep of perky little suns for each day is very encouraging. This month, I took the weekly icons to heart and planned around them—no more, though! A whole week can shift dramatically and do it again one day later! Standing outside with the next 12-hour forecast from the prediction page works best! Around the farm, the wild roses and alder trees are ragged and boney from tent caterpillars eating all the leaves down to the twigs. You can hear the munching—and the poop falling—if you are close to a stand of alders which is being used as a diner. The fancy roses in the garden, the strawberries, and the apples are prime targets. Squeamishness gives way to crass methods of removal due to the relentless numbers. Heavy and prolonged rain doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm. The south side of the Island is much more infested with the caterpillars than the north. I am hoping that this is their peak year, even though I haven’t seen any with the telltale white wasp egg parasite on their heads.

July 8
Having three daughters who graduated from our elementary school, the walls, windows and chalkboards are very familiar to me—always with the children bringing the place alive. I feel so thankful to all our school representatives that we still have our school nestled in the community when so many rural schools have been shut and the children are bussed to other places.

July 22
Summer is here—one day was so hot that the possibility of immersing myself in frigid seawater was tantalizing. Other people’s swimming thermostats are set lower than mine—a group of women swim at East Point most of the summer. After months of green, suddenly from the deck of the Mayne Queen you see the results of ten days of sunshine. The familiar Island shapes are gold, not green, and the air smells different—dust not mud. After a walk on the high south faces of the bluffs, you sit down to see the view and spend time picking the hitchhikers out of your socks before you continue! Slugs are no longer part of the scene. With the day-after-day of heat and light, everyone’s gardens jump to life and grow as if making up for lost time—as long as you water. The wood bugs and slugs quit vacuuming up the seedlings, seeds and eating holes in whatever managed to emerge. The cool, wet spring/early summer made the cucumbers and beans—really everything but lettuce and greens—despondent. My cucumbers did nothing for several weeks and a few gave up and announced they would rather become slug dinners than try to grow in this atmosphere. Replanting has been the order of the day for several items. After months of cool and drizzle, wondering if the garden would dry-out enough to plant the southern fancies, the earth has dried with a vengeance and I am the watering delivery mechanism!

August 5
Could the weather be more perfect? My sister, who lives in Tennessee, has 70ºF degree weather all spring and fall —which she reminds me about. Right now, down there it is 100ºF with 100% humidity. Smugly, I smile! Last night a huge full lemon-coloured moon lit up our eastern horizon, so bright you could wander around the garden and smell lovely smells from the lilies and eat a snap pea. Such celestial beauty halts me in my tracks. There is still lots of snow on the volcanoes, Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, but very little left on Washington’s Olympic Range. We had so much rain in the spring that our pond is still doing just fine even with the rainbird sprinklers going night and day to keep grass green for the butterball sheep. You can bet all those Islanders who live next to the Salish Sea are calling on their water catchment systems and remembering the spring rains with gratitude.

August 19
Rain! After 40 days of sunshine we got rain! Rusty cars turned to crusty cars, dessicated grass soaked legs and shoes. People scrambled for raincoats and promptly forgot them wherever they put them down because it wasn’t really raining that hard and they aren’t in the habit. Blackberries got a good plumping up which is critical for the wasps and pie-makers. Saturday was the day appointed for rain. It was the kind of day in August you plan a year ahead for a wedding or family reunion, betting easy odds that it will be just fine. Forty people dispersed for the day playing bocce, badminton, and lounging on patios is very different from 40 people inside the house while you assemble dinner and festivities. Nonetheless, the show goes on, in a much cozier manner than anticipated!

September 2
We finally made it up to a scorching crescendo of sunshine and heat. The dawns and long evenings were made for socializing and gazing at gardens and stars. In the middle of the day, you were either swimming or mentally inert. We had every window and door in the place open, were up by 6am, missed the middle of the day if possible, and loving the long evenings. Flies, ants, gnats, mosquitoes, hornets, bees, and blackflies were fully activated by the heat. The evenings brought out an array of moths along with their predators: bats, owls, nighthawks, and dragonflies. I could do without the biters, parts of me are both tanned and itchy and my fly-smacking abilities are back to professional. I grew up with this kind of weather in southern USA. Usually just before school in September we had two weeks of 100ºF. I can hardly imagine how we stayed alert or even awake in the afternoons, sticky with heat, dressed in our most impressive teenaged outfits.

September 16
It is amazing how the earth’s relationship to the sun has shifted. We can have the same sunny days as summer but as the nights get that much longer the days take longer to fire up and burn off the dew, and then they close down sooner. After the rain, the grass is growing in its fall spurt. No more 5am mornings, leaping out of bed to see what the world has stirring! We have two bucks, Mighty Big and the Understudy, who figured out how to get into the garden during the last drought. With the flashlight, I can see them at 8pm just waiting for things to quiet down so they can make that last leap into the garden paradise of roses, bean leaves and kale, anything young and tantalizing. I send out the fast-as-fire dog who loves the chase and they clatter off in great bounds. But they never forget now; they are there every night—we shall see!

September 30
What is this drenching, sodden series of ‘rain warning’ storms we have been having one after another—in September? And where the heck is that rain shadow? Do we have a hole in our ‘east-side of Vancouver Island’ umbrella? Initially, as it started to rain, I got into my late-fall, wet-weather gear and nearly boiled—it’s warm, even when it rains. Every roof has been tested and every gutter has been guiding torrents of water from them. The pond, which traditionally fills by the end of November, is full to the top and getting the waterfall across the road activated. The moss is already a riot of cushy green. This must be a mushroom aficionado’s fall of the decade—shaggy manes and boletus are everywhere. You can hear the fungi growing and see the new gardens of fruiting spores! The air is scrubbed clean and colours jump out. The metallic brown haze that we lived with as the short-lived sunny, summer days piled one on the other is somewhere else. This equinox-time, Jupiter and the moon are rising together in the east in torchlight procession as dusk ends. Jupiter is apparently the closest it has been in 50 years and it is easy to see one of the moons on the right hand side with binoculars. This is a tough year to be a hornet trying to eat plums and pears in the orchard! Our fruit harvest is late and sparse; we have eaten the fig crop in its entirety. The squash and cucumbers have packed it in, with white spots all over their leaves. Sigh, no rummaging around for that last small crookneck or cucumber hiding among the big green leaves. The fall chores are being done in hasty chunks. Roof sweeping, gutters, firewood, putting the garden to bed, annual outside door sanding and refinishing, and much more. It took time to get out of, “I’ll do it tomorrow when it isn’t raining”, and into “When that sunny day comes be ready to fly at the list!”

October 14
Jon and I are on vacation to the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States. We have left our house in good hands, with a young couple who will pat the dogs, collect the chicken eggs, live in the house, keep it warm, and the keep the spiders and dust agitated. Going away is exciting—and a lot of work. If you have a business and farm chores and a garden and greenhouse you spend lots of time organizing your absence! It is hard to reach a cut-off point for all of the tasks but finally the ferry pulls away and you are on a journey!

November 11
October 31, a gorgeous fall day, was the date for the first Saturna Goat Count. The Old Goat Committee organized to meet at an appointed time and walk the agreed upon beats, photograph the feral goats that they saw and report their findings. Twenty-five participants, including three Parks Canada staff, had a great time tromping about looking for goatherds. This exercise came about to give a baseline to the question how many goats do we really have? Two- hundred-and-one goats were counted. Concern has been expressed by Islanders and Parks Canada that the goat population is increasing and damaging plants, indigenous young trees and bushes, gardens and hay crops. The Old Goat Committee is formed from a wide- ranging group of Islanders who are interested in understanding the value and the challenges of feral goats on Saturna Island. They have created guidelines and a thoughtful document detailing what they hope to accomplish. There is a follow-up count planned for next spring.

November 25
The air has been so warm that even if we have a stretch of days featuring cycles of fog, rain, drizzle, scotch mist, and light rain it isn’t so bad! This is the time of year that some locals start to leave and be tourists somewhere south. On November 14, the five senators in BC reviewing the issue of destaffing more lighthouses were to visit the East Point Lighthouse Fog Alarm Building. The senators’ helicopter failed to land at East Point as the weather report transmitted from the unmanned light station was incorrect! The weather reported to the helicopter pilot was different from the quiet, sunny weather experienced by the people waiting on the ground to greet the passengers and pilot. It is hoped that this irony is not lost on the senators! Sometimes automated light stations can wait for days for a helicopter crew to arrive to make repairs.

December 9
Four Corners, the place where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet, is a spectacular land of light and rocks and a turquoise sky—occasionally shaded by lightning, pelting rain or snow. Dramatic erosion is the process that forms this world of canyons, uplifts, mesas, buttes, pinnacles, spires and a host of other geomorphic labels. Since Saturna has so much national parkland, I am always curious how park systems function as they carry out the task of hosting and educating visitors while maintaining the integrity of a unique natural feature that is entrusted to them. I came back with an appreciation of the print media that serve Saturna and the Gulf Islands. My guess is that a traveler to the Gulf Islands would be well informed about our community. I did not find that in my travels.


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