Monday, May 30, 2011

Get some protection

Back in my old life, in the urban wilderness of London, protection was a big issue.
“Always wear protection,” my mum would plead in her weekly phone calls from the English hinterland. “Always carry protection!” blared the TV adverts. “Make sure you’re protected. Wherever, whenever, whoever!” boomed the billboard ads.
But you know what, I just never really bothered.
I never wore a reflective jacket when riding my bike. I didn’t install a burglar alarm for the apartment. And, if I was out on the town I never carried a couple in my wallet.
Spare keys! What did you think I was talking about?
I believe that in my past missives on these pages I’ve painted a picture of London and my past existence that even someone who’s never ventured further than Bancroft or Bobcaygeon will appreciate was very different from how I live today. And, the issue of protection is no lesser tale of contrasts than any other.
London was, is, a maelstrom of humanity, much of it wonderful and exciting, some of it slightly dodgy, a small element, the dregs shall we say, downright nasty. Basically, you had to be on your guard just in case those dregs turn up when least expected. This meant taking precautions and getting protection.
Double mortise locks for the front door and lockable latches for the windows. A buttoned pocket for your wallet. A cycle vest and helmet, if cycling, and padlock to lock up your bike. An alarm for your car (this was not to protect your vehicle because no one so much as twitched a curtain when one sounded. No, the car alarm was purely recreational, to annoy neighbours in the early hours). A careful eye on your bag and cell phone at all times. A wary glance over your shoulder at the ATM. A mace spray for the ladies - not for use on the ladies (I was never that blessed in the looks department) but for use by ladies when amorous young fellas like me came-a-bothering. A couple of prophylactics in your wallet, if you were more blessed than I. And the list goes on.
London was a wonderful place but you had to have your wits about you whenever, wherever, whoever, as the ad campaign so succinctly put it.
Haliburton County is a whole different ball game, I find. People leave their front doors unlocked; their car windows wound down whilst popping to the store; their bikes propped nonchalantly against a lamppost, not a chain nor bolt cropper resistant cycle lock in sight.
Protection in Haliburton means the obligatory bug jacket and screen room (but I’ve probably bored you to tears already with my insect related rants).
Protection means keeping an eye out for your veggies. Fencing them in even! Folks in England look at me like I’m crazy when I tell of the razor wire and an electrified perimeter fence that would thwart even Steve McQueen and James Garner stretched around my carrots and cauliflowers. Little do they realise the tenacity of rabbits in these parts.
It is no word of a lie to say the rabbits turned up the day after we tilled the soil of our veggie patch. And, by the third day they were up on the deck leering at me through the screen door as I potted baby broad bean plants. I’m positive one even gnashed his buck teeth when my back was turned.
Protection in this rural idyll means checking that the beavers haven’t dammed the creek downstream of the house, causing it to flood the basement. Putting the chickens to bed before the neighbourhood coyote comes-a-calling.
Protection here means keeping your eyes peeled and wits about you as Mother Nature does her damndest to reclaim what is rightly hers (using undercover agents disguised as lovely fluffy critters that your wife and child adore): as she tries to take back the small patch of land that you, or the kind folks you purchased from, have carved out of this wild and wonderful wilderness.  

What’s bugging you?

Sorry for the predictable title, and, for harping on about them because I know that you locals don’t even notice the bugs, well that’s what I’m told by some.
But then again other folk say different: “they bite us just the same as you, we just got used to it.” GOT USED TO IT! ARE YOU CRAZY?
The bugs descended from I don’t know where onto my home last weekend. One minute we were enjoying the first really warming rays of spring sunshine, the next it was blotted out by a black cloud, and I don’t mean the type that rains on you.
“It’s OK, they’re not biting,” said a local friend of mine as I was besieged by a buzzing fog of black flies. “Oh good!” I spluttered, trying to dislodge twenty or so now partially drowned flies from the back of my throat.
“Good job we’re in the screen room,” I hacked, fighting my towards the gaping hole that signalled the very open door. Slamming it shut, I set about wreaking lethal vengeance on the 500 or so insects that I hadn’t swallowed.
I know, I know, I should have been more prepared for this. I have moved to bug central, after all. But how prepared can you be. My wife won’t come near me because I’ve been eating garlic by the bulb for the last three months. I’m told is dissuades vampiric mosquitoes from slaking their thirst on English folk.
I have also been trialing another natural remedy, essential oil of catnip. The bugs don’t seem to care but the cats! All I can say is, if you’ve lost your tabby in the last week, it’s probably scratching at my front door. I can’t go outside anymore. The bugs I can stand, the loved-up cats, they’re more of a problem.
I’m also informed that bugs are attracted to perfumed scents. No more drinking the Chanel No5 before I venture out, then. In fact, I’m going to forego any type of chemical soap, scent or deodorising agent. Will it keep away the bugs? Probably not. Will it detract the unwanted attentions of charity workers and Jehovah’s Witnesses… I may have inadvertently come up with a plan, there.
Now, I could resort to chemical warfare, slather my entire body in gallons of Deet and wander my three acres naked daring the bugs to come take a chew. Any bug foolhardy enough to come to close would drop like a fly, quite literally. Bathing in chemicals such as Deet day after day may send me mad but if I’m already wandering around naked that won’t make much difference, and, come to think of it, wandering naked in my garden will keep the Jehovah botherers away, too.
I could do as many folk in the UK do to their diminutive gardens and just pave my entire three acres. They do it to create a space to park the car. I do it to eradicate the habitat of unwanted pests. Trouble is, I might attract miserable, lank-haired, jeans-hanging-off-the-arse teenage skateboarders. I’ll have to give that idea more thought.
Time for desperate measures, may be. How about I throw my beautiful plump, rose skinned, two year-old son out of the door and let the bugs eat their fill of him before I step outside in Speedos and tanning lotion. Don’t think the wife would let me get away with that – the Speedos, I mean!
Bugs, they will become an accepted part of my life in years to come, I’m sure. However, if you happen to see an Englishman running maniacally down the road (naked or not, I haven’t decided on that one yet) flailing his arms around a head that is hidden within a cloud of insects, don’t worry it’s only me taking a leisurely stroll to the post box.      

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wedding, what wedding?

What with fortifying my home against tiny winged marauders; delving into the stickier points of maple syrup making; splashing about in moonlit creeks looking for tiny silver fish; and, gardening (I’ll get to that ongoing adventure in the next week or so), a couple of little events have slipped by almost unnoticed in the Jones household.

You Haliburtonians don’t miss a trick though and folks have reminded me of my civic duty to report on such matters.

And so, I cast my mind back a while to the, would they wouldn’t they? the guessing the date and who’d be invited to the party: the constant media agonising over whether they’d get along afterwards. Argh, the anticipation (yes, I meant to spell argh that way!).

When the big day finally arrived there was pomp and ceremony, coiffured hair, police escorts, fancy clothes, speeches, crying grandmas, coiffured hair, flag-waving babies, cheering crowds, champagne and celebration. Did I mention the coiffured hair?

Boy, you guys certainly know how to put on an election.

I’m afraid, or rather I’m absolutely elated that since moving from the bustling metropolis of Londinium to the relative wilds of Haliburton – since my immersion in all things local to my new locale – I have rather lost touch with the rest of the world.

I’ve got TV, radio, internet access, semaphore, smoke signals, all the gizmos – haven’t been brave enough to go ‘off grid’ like some of you folks – but I just don’t feel the urge to have an intravenous drip of news, views and spews from the world media 24/7. A couple of minutes of Mike Jaycock recounting the sports news over breakfast and I’m set for the day. On the radio, that is; I don’t invite him round specially!

News to me at the moment is the tree across the creek being blown over; the phoebes nesting in the woodshed; the honk of returning geese; and the ice finally going out, so the fishing can really begin.

It may sound like I’ve gone all R.D Lawrence on you. And may be I have but it’s a reaction to 15 years of being constantly pummelled by news. Radio stations with rolling newsflashes every few minutes. Wall to wall news networks on TV. Big screens in bars and stations that blared out the latest tragedy, while little screens on buses and tube trains inundated me and my hapless fellow travellers with feckless facts that I didn’t want or need to know.

The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Financial Times, Guardian, Sun, Star, Express and Mail - the UK’s national daily press. The Morning Metro and Evening Standard, plus a pile of other local papers as tall as your average blue heron, for London alone. A plethora of pulp faction, all destined for the recycle bin.

Exhausted by this onslaught, I’d lock myself in the loo for a quiet moment of self reflection, and what would happen? The next door neighbour would turn on the TV and I’d be privy to his news addiction through paper thin walls. In fairness, he’d also be able to hear my ‘thoughts’ on the matter as I flushed them down the pan!

And so you see, I missed the wedding. I awoke an hour after his royal baldness and commoner Kate had walked down the aisle. I breakfasted oblivious of the joyous celebrations being played out across London, England, the world (perhaps that’s stretching it a bit now-a-days). I just didn’t feel the need to turn on, tune in. I dropped out, so to speak (to misquote Timothy Leary). And you know what, I enjoyed it.

I have been quizzed on and received quizzical looks about my thoughts on the royal wedding. My accent it seems makes it mandatory that I should have a view (a ringside seat even!). And so, to satiate the calls for a statement (I believe that’s what they call them in the press): I wish good luck and long happiness to William and Kate.

I just hope they don’t mind if I can’t make it to their next garden party.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Beaver bothering

Tis a balmy night: the first one of spring. The stars shine brightly and peepers peep but the fog hangs thick, like a woollen shroud, over road and water. And I stand silent, rubber suited, nerves jangling, arms braced, net poised.

Voices: mutterings in the blackness. Two shady figures slowly materialise, walking around the edge of the weak pool of illumination that my headlamp casts; their faces shadows under baseball caps. When they speak the conversation is clipped: polite in a gruff kind of way but evasive at the same time. I take note and respond accordingly.

“Anything moving?”

“Nope,” I reply.

“Been here long?”

“Nope,” I reply.

“Been anywhere else?”

“Nope,” I reply.

“Hmm, looks like we’re too early, eh. Or, too late.” And with that they disappear again into the inky blackness.

My fishing partner smiles. “You meet all kinds and some are talkers but no one wants to give too much away,” he says. “If the smelt are running, they want to be first to the action.”

Yes, smelt fishing it is. Another first for this English city boy escaped to Canada.

I readily agree to try almost anything new. And, if that thing has the word ‘fishing’ in it then you know I’ll be there. I’ve waded tidal rivers at dusk, casting for sewin. I’ve stalked carp in mist enveloped lakes before dawn. But these nocturnal wanderings up creek and down culvert are a new and altogether more clandestine experience.


My heart jumps into my mouth. My foot slips off the culvert that I’m perched upon and I almost, almost drop the long pole to which the dip net is fixed.

“Don’t drop the net,” chastises my partner through a fit of giggles. “You’re annoying the beavers.”
I regain both my composure and my position on the culvert and lift the net again. A silver flapping meets my gaze. This is the magical jewel-like fish that we have come to harvest.

Glinting in my headlamp. Smelt.

Now I could leave the description at that. Smelt. But that would be cheating you, the reader. Smelt, you see, is one of those dual purpose words like sheep, moose or wildebeest. It can mean a solitary beast or a vast herd.

There are no smelt herds roaming the watery plains tonight, I’m afraid. My smelt is a smelt. A forlorn little specimen no longer than my middle finger (and I don’t have very big hands, either).

What this single fish does, however, is spur us on.

“It’s a scout, an eager male rushing to spawn,” enthuses my smelting partner. “The run is on, we just have to wait and there’ll be more.”

There were. Eight more, to be precise.

As we wait for the sadly absent myriad silvery smelt, the darkness becomes less oppressive. The night world opens up to us. A fox trots by unconcerned by our presence. The first bull frog of the season practices a rasping croak. Glow worms glow, so warm is it as we sit and wait.

But the smelt, they remain an enigma.     

And so, as I sit, eyelids drooping, I wonder about smelt. Do they really still run in such numbers that folks can fill pails, pans and baskets in minutes? Is their run triggered by water temperature, the cycles of the moon, or a synchronised inbuilt urge to spawn? Do they really have to wait until bloody midnight!

The questions are left unanswered. All I know for sure is that those smelt (all nine of them, thanks to my generous smelting partner) will taste divine seasoned and fried, with a thick slice of homemade bread.

Good enough for me to go disturbing beavers again, next year.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It’s all in the bark

I see a waft of smoke rising above the treetops into the still spring air. Like the silver grey tail of some mythical aboriginal wolf, it wavers and wags before drifting to invisible.

Ah, the poetry of imagination, the whimsy of a writer still acquainting himself with the rhythm of life in this splendid wilderness. But quaint ditty aside, this wisp of smoke is a signal: not some ancient bush telegraph but a sign that my neighbour is boiling sap.

It’s maple syrup season and all around the county, in sheds, lean-tos and workshops, there are folks piling wood into furnaces, stoking the flames, bringing vast vats of watery tree liquid to the boil.

Sorry, shacks. Sugar shacks: that’s the name. I still have a lot to learn about maple syrup production. For instance, I’m told that soft maple don’t make good syrup. How you differentiate them from hard ones I have yet to figure, though. Hit them with a hammer? Call them names and see which cries first? Give them a good firm hug (may be not, I don’t want to be accused of being a hippy!).

Thankfully, one, shall we say, rather antique looking gentleman whom I met recently took me under his wing, to educate me on the ways of syrup making. He told me it’s all to do with the bark. “The bark!” I exclaimed. “I may be new to this country but even I know trees don’t bark.” He didn’t hang around to clarify his point.

Now, I also believe these wondrous woofing maple trees have taps. I know what they are. It’s mighty convenient, if you ask me. Wander out into the bush, turn the tap and you’ve got hot and cold running syrup. And they tell me its hard work making Canada’s favourite condiment.

But I jest. To me maple syrup seems to add up to a whole lot of work for a relatively little harvest. To begin with syrup harvesters (I guess you could call them that) are at the mercy of the weather. Last year was terrible, I’m told, because it warmed up far too quickly. This year: better. I’m glad these frigid temperatures are pleasing someone!

Then there’s the boiling of the sap. Forty gallons of sap makes one gallon of syrup, or so I gleaned, before we got onto the bark thing and my teacher stalked out, face like thunder. It seems patience is of the essence: you just have boil and boil and boil till hey presto, syrup.

Friends of mine (less antique, more, beautiful young things) decided to try their hand at making syrup this year. They tapped the trees. I told them: “hit ‘em harder so they bark good and loud.” They ignored me. They collected sap. They started to boil it down a week or so ago. I think they’re still doing it.

Last I heard they’d got through two bottles of barbeque gas and were threatening to throw the whole shebang - the vat of still bubbling sap, barbeque, taps, spiles, buckets and brand new unsullied syrup jars, the lot – in the lake.

My advice, leave it to the ‘antique’ gents; they seem to know what they’re doing. Before my wizened mentor departed in a huff, me woof woofing quizzically in his wake, I had sat listening to him and his fellow maple experts recounting syrup making stories. I gained much useful knowledge. I also learned that a boiling vat of sap and squirrel doesn’t mix well.

I now tend to suck my syrup through my teeth, just to make sure there are no hairs left in it.