Friday, July 22, 2011

Showers, sovereignty and the meaning of life

First it ran to a trickle, then a drip and after that nothing.

Midway through a shower after a hard day’s toil at the keyboard; all lathered up and ready for a cool rinse off and what happened, the water just stopped, that’s what. I scraped soap suds off my personage, in much the same way as a German bartender knocks the foam off the top of a glass of lager, all the while grumbling to myself that someone was going to get an earful about this.

And then it dawned on me. There was no one to give an earful to. No water company to call. No emergency hotline to be put on infinite hold by when calling to report a problem. There was no one else to lambast about my lack of water other than me and my now dry well.

Water, that life giving elixir, is something that far too many in this world take for granted. And I was one of them. Living in England, where all but a tiny minority of households are linked to the mains water supply, we all expect there to be water when we turn on the tap. Just like we expect there to be a pub on every corner, a traffic jam on every motorway and a few folks in every country of the world who don’t like us because we conquered and enslaved them at some point in the distant past.

The thing is, we may have colonised many places but us Brits never bothered to learn the local culture. And, it was as such that I came to Canada and showered long and luxuriantly, oblivious to the fact that my well could and would run dry if I used its precious content wastefully. Never again shall I take water, my water, for granted like I did when I lived in Londinium.

And this is the moral of my meandering words in this week’s column. Not water use, because you’re all well used to wells and their workings. No, I’m harping on about taking things for granted.

While I didn’t appreciate my water supply until forced to flick foam rather than rinse off, I am acutely aware of the wonders bestowed upon me in my new home here in Haliburton. Absolute blessings such as the mile after mile of verdant wilderness and the cobalt blue lake around every corner. Roads that are not choked with traffic and exhaust fumes and people within or without car, who smile and take the time of day to say hello. Even the pesky racoons, veg stealing white tails and chicken chomping foxes are something to rejoice about because so many people in this world get little or no chance to see and appreciate them: let alone get annoyed by their presence in our lives (or should that be our presence in their lives!). 

And so I gently remind you Haliburtonians, those things you see and experience everyday, those quirks and quibbles of life in the Highlands, take a moment to step back, reappraise and enjoy them because to many, including myself, they are a rare and unique pleasure.

But back to my water. The well filled up again, thankfully and I’m now much more conscious of the amount of water I use and the relative fragility of the supply. I even went so far as finding out a little more about the other idiosyncrasies of homes in rural Canada. There’s the family of chipmunks living in the floor space that every house comes equipped with. The grills in the floor that I think have something to do with the heating but which more importantly are employed by little Z as postage slots for toys, money and partially chewed meals. Hmm, may be he’s in league with the chipmunks.

And then there’s the septic tank; that subterranean cauldron filled with what I believe you laughingly refer to as ‘honey’.

I just hope its sweet in there because I’m not looking forward to jumping down inside and shovelling it out this fall. That’s what you do, right?   

Monday, July 11, 2011

Fowl play

The stench of death hangs heavy over chez Jones as I write this missive. A dastardly deed was committed last night and the culprit left naught but a few feathers and twelve tiny chickens huddled in fear.

Yes, nature in all its tooth and claw has visited us and taken, murdered no less , one of our four-week old chicks. And they had only been in the outdoor pen for a day! This livestock husbandry is turning out to be a fraught affair.

Imagine our innocent joy when 15 yellow balls of day-old chick were delivered into our arms (or rather into an old bathtub that sits in my tackle room). The sight of them brought back memories of childhood past. Of me with brother and sister, Mum and Dad, chasing first chicks, then ducklings, and eventually even goslings around our back garden in Blighty.

Now with our own little boy to delight, and a gaping hole in the chest freezer to fill, we jumped at the chance to rear our own meat birds. No one told us of the horrors we were, and still are, enduring; and we have weeks to go until ‘processing’ day!

A mere 24 hours after their arrival, we noticed one little chick looking sickly. You could tell because the colour had completely drained from his face; that, and the fact he lay in a corner panting slightly and not eating. He passed quietly away in the night. Oh well, one down 14 left. Little Z will never notice, we thought.

A couple of days later, while son and I fed and watered our brood, one chick convulsed, squawked, twitched, squawked again and fell dead. A chicken heart attack, I guess. “Chicken sleeping, Daddy?” enquired Z. “Erm, yes,” I lied, instantly riddled with guilt.

And then there’s Wonky. Named as such due to what I can only imagine was the chicken version of a stroke; he was left unable to stand, one leg splayed awkwardly to the side and with a useless wing. Did we put him out of his misery? Of course not.

Wonky now resides in his own private room. He has a cardboard box lined with straw, his own water and food bowls. And, because he squawked in anguish at being separated from the flock, Wonky’s box has windows cut into the sides, a panoramic view no less, so that he can see and commune with his chicken brethren.

This catalogue of death and injury has been quite hard on us to date, and now that the chicks are old enough to go outside we have to contend with the local wildlife, too?

I say this sounding innocent to the point of dumb to many of you I’m sure and when I think back to my childhood I should have expected as much. I mentioned that we had chickens, ducks and geese at my family home. Well, we did and we graduated from one fowl variety to another not because of culinary preference, nor expansion of the smallholding. No, my Mum liked having these birds around and so did the resident foxes.

Quite regularly, on returning from letting the birds out in early morning or putting them in at dusk, Mum would have a tear in her eye. We grew to recognise her maudlin nature and not ask what was wrong but how many had gone.

Yes, we kept chickens et al to feed the wildlife. Murder at the bottom of the garden was a regular occurrence. We even came to accept it as part of the natural order. So, I guess I have to go out to my Canadian brood, reinforce the fences and suck it up.

Why do this, though? Because I like a chicken dinner, and even if I do contribute to a coyote’s larder once in a while, I’ll keep on doing it because that’s what my Mum does.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Getting fruity

I smiled when I heard the words: “Daddy. Got tummy ache, Daddy.” Delivered in a slightly whimpering tone, and accompanied by a furrowed brow and exaggerated massaging of his stomach, it seemed little Z was suffering somewhat.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am the first to rush to the aid of my little son if there is something seriously amiss but on this warm sunny Sunday afternoon we were in the car, returning from a stint strawberry picking. And yes, you guessed it, one member of our family trio had gorged rather than gathered.

The fields of Dunloe Farm were alive with the drone of bees and dancing a sway of wildflowers in the summer breeze. Amidst this idyllic scene were the bent backs of six or seven pensioners, all intent on filling baskets with sweet Haliburton strawberries.

“Pick your own eat till you burst,” I half said as we walked towards the field, remembering the words whispered to me by my mischievous granddad many years previous.   

“Daddy, what are the people doing?” inquired little Z, before bursting into an “Ooooo!” as he spotted the first of a myriad juicy red fruits. Strawberry picking to a child is as near as it gets to being let loose in the candy store.

Watching my lad’s delight brought back many similar memories from my childhood. Of being told to tread carefully between the rows. Of being instructed to pick only the reddest ripest fruits. And, of being warned not to eat too many on pain of punishment by the farmer!

My brother and I beat the system, though. Finding a particularly fruity patch, we’d lie down between the furrowed rows, and, sniggering at each other between the plants, polish off pints of succulent crimson berries. After this seriously high strawberry intake, a call from Mum would beckon us and we’d hastily throw a few into the basket before sprinting to the end of the field where we’d pool our pick ready for weighing.

“That’s not many. What were you two doing over there?” Mum asked with a knowing smile. “Are you sure you didn’t eat any?” I’d look at my brother and he back at me. Simultaneously, we’d feign horror and retort, “NO!” All the while hands frantically wiping mouths to remove the only too obvious signs of our feast. As if smearing strawberry juice from ear to ear somehow disguised our deed.

And in the car home: “Mum, I’ve got tummy ache…”

I write these words with mixed feelings. Little Z’s stomach ache doesn’t bother me. Oh no; he’ll be fine, and he’ll no doubt do it again next year, I know we did.

The reason I lament is that on a recent visit back to England I drove past the pick your own fields of my childhood. Or I think I did. Where once we pilfered those juicy red berries there is now an estate of executive homes. The faux Georgian villas and immaculate black tarmac, having obliterated the scene of many a glorious gluttonous summer stomach ache.

As is the way in that tiny island of my birth, rural land is being sold off and built up at a speed unfathomable in times when no one is meant to have any money. Where once families picked their own, now they trim verdant lawns (the size of your average horseshoe pit) and leave the strawberry harvest to immigrant workers in Brazil or Ecuador.

Where once the outing to the pick-your-own was a family treat; now, the supermarket truck delivers picked, processed, perfect (you can never find those funny shaped ones that look like bums in supermarket strawberries) fruit to the front doors of little Englanders in their phony castles. 

So, I say thank you Dunloe Farm and Haliburton County for transporting me back to my childhood; for giving us the privilege of picking our own; and, for giving little Z the tummy ache he deserved for eating one (or five) too many strawberries. See you again, same time next year.