Wednesday, May 29, 2019


I knew before I moved here that I'd be encountering many creatures that I'd never seen up close in my life.  I'd heard tales of coyotes and rabbits, beavers and even deer.  I've always had a profound dislike for zoos, and I long ago made the decision never to visit one, so I've probably seen fewer species than the average 7 year old.  I knew I'd be on a steep learning curve.

The first animal I saw on my property was a muskrat.  At first I thought it was a beaver - until I realized how big a beaver actually is.  When you see something swimming in your pond, if you can see its head and back, and it's less than the size of a football, that's likely a muskrat.  A muskrat looks like a very small beaver with a rat-like tail.  By contrast, a beaver weighs about 50 pounds.

I've seen a few chipmunks, and twice I've seen rabbits.  So far my vegetable garden hasn't been raided by any rabbits but I've been told to expect that to happen if I don't put chicken wire around  it soon.

I've smelled a skunk once.  I went out to the carport one morning and found some of my beekeeping equipment scattered on the ground.  I went to pick up a bee brush and noticed it smelled strongly of skunk.  Not too sure how happy the bees will be about that.

About 10 days ago, I was taking my wheelbarrow down to the decommissioned playground to load it up with gravel, as I was regravelling the driveway.  It was still daylight, perhaps around dinnertime. I looked up and saw a mid-brown animal that looked a bit dog-like heading from my north property line to Pond One.  It stood there, looking at the pond, while I stood there wondering what it was and what it was doing.  It seemed to be surveilling the pond for something. I stood still, watching it.  Its face was not at all dog-like. Suddenly, it looked directly at me. We locked eyes and I realized:  that's not a dog, it's a coyote.

I knew that the way to avoid problems with coyotes is not to turn your back on them or run, so we basically had a staring contest.  I tried to look as big and imposing as I could.  Suddenly, the coyote wheeled around and ran for the trees along my north fence line.  I dropped the wheelbarrow and went into the house to Google "coyote" to confirm that's what I had seen.  It was.  I watched out the window for a while, surmised that it had come to scoop up a nice muskrat from the pond for dinner, and finally got my courage up enough to go and retrieve the wheelbarrow.

Since then, I've seen many muskrats coming out of the pond to forage in the lawn for a snack. I always warn them to be on the lookout for coyotes.

Twice recently, I've gone for a hike to my island and encountered a deer.  The first one looked quite small.  It jumped off the island into Pond Two and I lost sight of it.  The second sighting was the very next day.  Friends were visiting from Toronto.  Two of us decided to hike over to the island. Half way there, we heard a rustling among the trees and suddenly there was a  larger doe with white spots,  jumping off the island into the pond, heading for the fence line. We traversed the island, and I noticed something red and white on the ground, up against a clump of yew bushes.  It looked like a plastic toy of some kind.  I've been very diligent about cleaning up plastic and garbage from the property, and it was definitely not there before.  I went up to have a closer look.

I realized it was a small animal lying on its side, and it was clearly newly deceased.  The red and white was the bones of its rib cage and the tissue underneath, as a large patch of its fur was missing.  I was dumbstruck; was it shot by a hunter?  Or attacked by a coyote?  Had it been abandoned by its mother or been injured during birth?  We stood there for a few minutes.  I asked my friend if it was a fawn or a hare, perhaps, because it had long ears. She confirmed it was a fawn.

I had my phone with me so I took a few pictures.  Please don't look if you are squeamish.

We headed back to the bridge, but I felt deeply distressed.  Next day, I felt I should do something to mark its short life.  I went to the basket where I keep fabric remnants and cut a long strip of pure white linen.  Then I took a large bag of dried lavender flowers that my friend Crystal had given me for my last birthday and headed back to the island.  I walked the entire island very carefully but could not find the fawn.  I compared the photos on my phone to the places on the island where there were yew bushes and established where I believed the fawn had been.  I tied the strip of linen around a young tree, and sprinkled handfuls of dried lavender on the ground to mark where it had lain.  I felt like the only mourner at a funeral.

I suddenly heard a voice, singing, and was surprised to find that it was my voice, singing the Italian love song O Sole Mio in Neapolitan dialect.  Then I heard myself singing the Paul McCartney love song, I Will.  These are the songs I sing when I visit the cemetery where my beloved guys are buried.  I often bring dried lavender to their grave.  I sometimes bring pebbles from my travels, and I always bring fresh bread for the birds and squirrels.

I don't know what happened to the fawn - how it got there, how it died, where it is now - but I feel that though I could do so little in that moment, I could at least honour its short life with this brief, heartfelt ceremony.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


It's seven weeks now since I moved out of Toronto and I can hardly begin to count the things I've learned.

When I look back, I can see signs as far back as two years ago that change was looming.  One day, I was lunching with friends at Colette Grand Cafe, very close to our old house on Portland Street. We were appropriately dressed for a genteel urban lunch.  Leaving the restaurant with one of my friends, I asked if she'd mind a detour to Lee Valley Tools, conveniently located five minutes away.

If there's anyone on earth who objects to a detour to Lee Valley Tools, I don't want to meet them because there's no way that person and I could ever be friends.   If you're a friend of mine and you want to break up with me in the cleanest, most surgical way, just say "I don't want to go to Lee Valley with you".  You'll never see or hear from me again.

But on this occasion two years ago, my particular reason for visiting Lee Valley was because I'd been wanting an axe of my own.  A splitting axe, in particular. Also known as a maul.  One of the things I wanted to learn was to become a proficient, nay, elegant splitter of wood.

And that's when I bought my Ochsenkopf.  It's a German word, meaning oxen head, and that's generally the shape of a maul.  Its purpose is to drive a thick wedge along the grain of dry wood so it splits in two for easy burning.  Strictly speaking, I don't have the arms for such a heavy axe.  I'm really strong, but my elbow joints and wrists are the weak links in the chain.  I should have bought a lighter weight axe, but I loathe things that are specifically designed for women's use.  And somehow that Ochsenkopf really spoke to me.

When I got it home, I immediately started looking for things to chop, which led to the discovery that my Ochsenkopf did not actually come pre-sharpened.  There was a hardware store across the street from Atelier Ivaan, so I went across to buy a sharpening stone.  

If you're female, you've probably been mansplained a few thousand times in your life.  Usually the predominantly male sales staff at New Canadians Lumber, the hardware store, know not to make assumptions about me, but this day I happened across a newer staff member who decided to give me a lecture on  sharpening axes. I'm pretty sure he'd never sharpened anything in his life, because when he got to the "No, no, no, you don't want that to be sharp.  That's dangerous, eh?" stage, my patience ran right out.  I looked at him hard, and shot back, "When it's not sharp, we call it a"

Once the Ochsenkopf was good and sharp, there was no stopping me.  Last May - May 5, 2018 to be precise - there was a huge windstorm in Toronto which felled a gigantic old tree and the fence of a local schoolyard.  The minute news went out of a downed tree in the neighbourhood, the Ochsenkopf and I were on the scene, practising our moves.  You can't do this for too long, though, because even a grey-haired woman of a certain age looks mighty suspicious wielding an axe in downtown Toronto.  And let's face it:  splitting wood is more exhausting than watching YouTube videos of people splitting wood.

I learned some pretty good skills, the best among them being:  don't bother trying to split wood that is still damp.  You'll be resharpening the old Ochsenkopf every five minutes.  Plus you'll look like you don't know what you're doing.

But out here in the back of beyond, I have infinite scope for my need to chop things.  Just this morning, I felled two deceased cedar trees.  I was kind of hoping someone would come along and watch, but I chopped in solitude.  I'll throw those cedars on the fire pit once they've dried out a bit more.

Then people can come by and be impressed by my fire building skills, which are next on the agenda.

Saturday, May 4, 2019


When I announced that I was moving to a rural community, the second thing people said to me (after the bit about needing to buy a lot of furniture) was, "Aren't you going to feel isolated?"

I'd usually laugh and reply, "I'm hoping so", because I love solitude, but I wondered if I actually had any neighbours and if I was going to meet them and like them.  Even before I officially moved into my new home, I was here once dropping things off when I saw a little car pulling out of the long driveway across the street.  The driver looked at me for a few seconds and I realized she was probably wondering who the stranger was, loitering around, so I waved and ran across the street to introduce myself.

She was very friendly and helpful about answering a couple of questions I had. And that's how I met Liz.

I later learned that Liz and Linda have lived in their house since about 1987, and between them, they know everybody.  They know the former owners of my house, and they knew the owners before that.

A couple of weeks later, there was a knock on my door.  It was Liz and Linda, who had arrived with a housewarming present of muffins, chocolate and flowers.  I gave them a tour of the house and we chatted away like we'd known each other for years.  They invited me to the Erin Eco Film Festival, about which I'd been reading.  The day of the first screening, Liz dropped by to remind me (as if I'd forget!) and I learned that it's unnecessary to run right away to answer the door, because if your car is in the driveway, people know you're home, and if they don't get an answer at the door, they just look around the property to see if you're outside.  In Toronto, if someone comes to your door without a formal invitation, either your building is on fire or they'll just tap timidly on your door and leave if you don't answer immediately.

At the second screening of the Erin Eco Film Festival, Liz introduced me to Phil, who owns a small brewery called GoodLot, not far away. Chatting away with Phil, I learned he's an admirer of my friend Dave Bidini, knows the West End Phoenix,  and loves Dave's band The Rheostatics.  I told him about our upcoming West End Phoenix Retreat and promised to have GoodLot beer in the fridge for the occasion.

So I was starting to feel like part of a community.  I've been making a point of being extra friendly to strangers, saying hello to people and taking extra care to thank sales staff in stores for their help.  Sometimes people's friendliness takes me by surprise.  Once, walking down the main street, I was very taken aback when a man walked up to me and delivered a friendly vote of appreciation for the look of my jeans.  Okay, they're red jeans, but still....

He asked if I planned to go dancing with him.  I was quite startled.  In Toronto, an unsought-after opinion about my fashion choices or physique, loudly expressed by a stranger, would have earned him a fat lip.  But I'm not in Toronto, so I laughed and let it go right over my head.

Yesterday, I noticed that the tire pressure on Clyde, my beloved motorcycle, had dropped quite low.  I wasn't totally comfortable driving into town to the nearest gas station with low tires, because the road I live on has a posted speed of 80 km/hr, so I picked a time when traffic was likely to be minimal, packed my mobile phone, CAA membership and a wallet full of cash, and headed into town.  Clyde and I got there just fine.  I filled up the front tire, no problem, but when I got to the back tire, it was next to impossible to get the nozzle of the air pump into position to pump up the tire.  One dollar, two dollars, three dollars in the machine.  I felt my irritation rising. I saw a guy in a pick-up truck pull in to the service station to fill up his tank.  When he returned to his truck, I asked if he could help me.  No problem, he said, and he pumped up that tire in no time at all. I thanked him, sincerely, and went to start up Clyde for the ride home.  Hit the ignition....nothing.  Tried two or three times and the battery seemed dead.

I rolled Clyde out of the way, called CAA and was waiting for a boost when a guy came over.  "We were watching you out our window", he said, by way of introduction.  "Looks like you're having trouble.  Do you need a boost?"  I told him I was waiting for CAA.  He said, "We'll give you a boost", pulled out his phone and called his wife.  "Bring the car.  She needs a boost", he said. One minute later, she rolled up in an old Pontiac.

Together we put the booster cables on my battery, Scott hit the ignition and Clyde roared into action.  Immediately, my phone started to ring.  I had my motorcycle helmet on, so I passed the phone to Sandy and asked her to answer it for me.  It was CAA.  "Thanks, we've got it started", she told them.   I went for my wallet to give Scott and Sandy some money by way of thanks, and in unison they firmly declined.  I offered again.  "People in Erin look out for each other", they said, so again I thanked them sincerely and shook their hands.

Clyde and I roared home without further incident, and I have added Liz, Linda, Phil, Scott and Sandy to the list of good neighbours who have made me feel welcome.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


Today is the one-month anniversary of my having 'bought the farm'.

So far, it's been brilliant.  I could blather on forever about the fresh air, the delicious, clean well water, the silence and the utter darkness at night.
But frankly, I'm too busy learning the many new things I'll need to know, not merely to survive here, but to thrive.

I vowed before I came here that I'd approach this new chapter of my life with humility.  I'm not aware of having much big city attitude, but after half a century in downtown Toronto, I've probably got my share.  So, rule #1:  none of the baggage I came with will necessarily serve me well. This includes all my beautiful leather boots. Rule #2:  ask, nicely, for advice or recommendations, and if it's not immediately forthcoming, let it go.  No one owes you anything. Rule #3: if you come here looking to pay other people to do stuff you ought to know how to do yourself, you might as well have stayed in Toronto.

The first night here, I almost froze to death.  I arrived the day before my furniture arrived, but I had brought a chaise longue from my roof garden, and several wool blankets.  I didn't know how to operate the propane fireplace, so I slept in my clothes in front of the fireplace, just in case it took pity on me and magically started working during the night.  I had no phone and no internet, and boy, was it dark, but I survived and the hot shower I took the next morning made me feel human again.

Two of my nephews pretty much saved me on Day One.  Ivor, from his nice warm townhouse in Ottawa, hacked into my email for me (we're close that way) contacted the former owner, and between them, they figured out how to get my landline up and running. Angus and his partner, Sara, drove up from Toronto and while Angus installed some new phone jacks, Sara started wiping out the kitchen cupboards so I could unpack my dishes.  When the movers arrived, I was delighted to see how good my furniture looked and fit here.  It was as though I had chosen it precisely for this house.  See what I mean?

One of the oddities of this house is that there are two basements: the "old" basement and the "new" basement.  The old basement is the finished basement, and the new basement is the one with the concrete floor.  It also has the steepest staircase in the world.  It's like descending a cliff. Angus took one look at it and installed a landline at the bottom of the stairs, on the assumption that I'd eventually fall down those stairs, break a leg and need to call 911 for help.

Everyone who knew I was moving to a large house told me the same thing:  you need to buy a lot more furniture. I'm pleased to say, I didn't. Yes, I bought a huge green leather sofa before I moved here, and it has turned out to be very useful.  Although I inherited some furniture and art with the house, I've opted to sell most of it, so the net furniture I've acquired is a gate leg table, two small armchairs, two nesting coffee tables, an architect's desk, some bookcases and a twin bed frame.

My good friend Natalka Husar gave me my choice of one of her sketches, framed, for my dining room.

Sketch for "Bite" by Natalka Husar

Some paintings came with the house and I have come to like all of them, one very much indeed.
Lady Birds by Jillson Evans Rolland

Perhaps the best thing that came with the house is a rowboat.  I've named her the good ship Louise.  She totally looks like a Louise.  I've been out sailing on the ponds twice, and I love it, though family members have pointed out that a black leather motorcycle jacket is not a life preserver.

Clothing-wise, I've acquired a  pair of work jeans, work gloves, a plaid flannel shirt, and some knee length rubber boots.  I am a bit worried that my feet are going to take on the size and shape of those rubber boots, because they're all I've worn since I bought them.  I'm hoping to find an Amish men's straw hat.  Yesterday in the tool department of a hardware store in Georgetown, one of the older guys who works there called me "Sir". I took it as a compliment.  So...none of those finky women's straw hats for me.

Three days ago, I had my first bonfire in the fire pit.  Before you can have bonfires, you have to get a Burn Permit from the municipality.  There are rules to follow, including that you cannot burn things when the winds are over 10 km/hr.   I have a Burn Permit.  And I had a mountain of twigs.  So my bonfire was burning nicely and I leaned over to add some twigs to the top of the pile.  The breeze suddenly shifted, and just as suddenly I smelled that distinctive odour of burning hair.  If you've ever smelled it, it's not something you forget.  My hair is generally short, with a long lock on top.   At least it was.  I clapped my hands on my head but the damage was already done.  I didn't bother going inside to look in a mirror.    That night, I had a long, hot shower, applied an entire vat of conditioner, and I have to say, my accidental hairstyle looks pretty good.  Especially that black streak where the long lock used to be.

As I say, I came here to learn.