Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Autumnal invaders

When I first saw them I didn't take a lot of notice. Just one or two scattered here and there around the county. Funny, I thought, and that was about it.

But then more started to appear. Gradually they were spreading, popping up like some form of disease, a seasonal rash, may be. Some were big, some small. They appeared alone, in lines, even clusters and piles.

I began to get a little concerned when early one Sunday morning I saw one lying in the middle of Highland Street, split open, like some huge deformed egg from which a grotesque being had hatched and skittered off into the shadows, leaving a trail of seeds.

I pointed it out to my companion. I didn't elucidate my full blown theory about little orange men for fear that my Canadian buddy would think me crazy. I simply exclaimed: “Whoa! Look at that, there, Jees,” in a high pitched uncontrolled shriek but he brushed it off, stating, “kids, eh. Who’d have ‘em.”

Kids... I shivered. Surely they come from the same place as the ones in the UK!

And then, a few days later, I stumbled upon the epicentre of the outbreak; the Area 51 of Haliburton’s alien invasion; the place where no one in their right mind should be going anywhere near. But there was no high fence, no federal agents cordoning the area off.

I was in Buckhorn, that pleasant little village on the way to Peterborough; the place the aliens had undoubtedly aimed to conquer first. And, amidst the rolling fields on this beautiful fall day there was a long line of smiling families waiting their turn to pay money to enter, to ride on a tractor to go see where this bizarre phenomenon was spreading from.

Now, I'm sure you’ve all seen those films where the hero (not that I'm casting myself as some death defying, world saving chap by any means) is at first dead set on staying as far away from the action as possible but somehow he just can't help but wander right into the heart of the lions den. Well, that was how it was with me.

I stopped the car a way off down the road (there was a large queue), and, taking Little Z as back-up/a disguise/human shield I followed the crowd of smiling folk.

They gladly paid their dues and loaded themselves onto tractor trailers. They grinned and chattered as we were pulled slowly away from civilization and out into the uninhabited countryside. Past fields of strawberries, tomatoes, raspberries and corn we went.

The corn definitely worried me. I've seen corn in too many horror films.

And then, there it was, the source of my angst. A vast field filled with thousands of them. Big ones and small; smooth, ribbed and knobbly. There were white ones, green and grey but mostly they were the same as the ones spreading throughout Haliburton. Orange!

The tractor stopped and the kids piled off it, running out into this field of doom. I screamed at them to stop but was drowned out by another tractor as it approached with another trailer load of smiling faces. I began to realise it was too late and slumped down on the steps of the trailer. I clutched weakly at Little Z as he struggled to get free and I wept as he broke from my grasp, ran into the field and threw his arms around the largest orange orb that he could find.

The wife looked at me like I was an alien and skipped over to our little boy. I'd lost them, it seemed.

Suddenly a large hand pressed my shoulder. I looked up into the big brown eyes of the Mexican tractor driver. He understood, I could see.

“What? Why?” I bleated.

“I know,” he said. “Crazy, crazy people. They worship them! They pay money to come in; they pay money to take them home, and then, they build shrines. They stack them in the street, line their driveways, set them on the porch with candles in!

“In Mexico we just eat pumpkins.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The wisdom of wood

Oh for the gentle wisdom of a Haliburtonian, a Mindenite or Kinmounter (Kin...mounter! that can't be right): the contemplative knowledge of a Wilberforcian, Gooderhamist or Gelert..., hmm, bloke from Gelert. Alas, to date I possess none of this zen-like intelligence but am blessed only with a Londoner's lack of patience and need for instant gratification. Let me tell you a little story to try to explain.

When, a while back, I moved from England to your fair county, it was midwinter. The temperature was lower than a turtle’s belly and the snow deeper than the voice of that fellow on the Ram pickup ads.

I ordered a face cord of logs to warm my rented home and they were delivered the very next afternoon. I neglected to stack them until the following morning (other things, like chipping the icicles off of Little Z's extremities to worry about) only to find that they had frozen into a single hard mountain that I could break apart only with repeated swings of a large axe: the axe I had thought I would not need to purchase because the logs were already chopped and split.

Fast forward six months to the next July. On buying my own home in Haliburton I was overjoyed to find it heated exclusively by hydro. Can you imagine my smug happiness? The simplicity of turning the heat on and off at the flick of a switch; the ease of cranking the thermostat up a notch or two; my self satisfied grin at knowing I’d never have to trudge out into the yard at 8.30 on a frigid winter’s evening to fetch logs for the fire. 

I have since overwintered in my electricity-eating home. I have spent many a dark winter’s night listening to the hum of the hydro meter as it whirs round at a rate of knots so swift that it actually produces a small amount of residual heat by friction alone. Don’t worry though, this writer has pockets so deep he can tuck himself, wife and son right into them and cuddle together to keep warm: that, or burn dollar bills, which seems comparatively cheap when compared to hydro heating.

But this is not my point. Your wisdom is what I wish to discuss and I now start to see where it is garnered. I recently agreed to do a friend a favour and stack some logs for her. “Yeah, sure I’ll help,” I glibly said. The next day I drove round to her house, only to almost pass right on by as it was hidden behind a pile of logs so large I would need ropes, crampons and an oxygen tank to scale it!

But, a promise is a promise and so I set about stacking logs. The task was daunting at first but I soon got into the swing. Load the barrow, push it up the steep driveway (did I mention she lived on a hill), stack logs and repeat. I made good headway for the first half hour, powering through fuelled by macho bravado and a stubborn insistence that no tree was going to get the better of me. I started to flag after an hour but then a strange thing happened: my mind, my body, my whole being became ‘at one’ with my task and I settled into a steady work rhythm; an almost meditative state of load, push, stack, push, load...

Though my body toiled I found my mind free to wander. I wondered about the ills of the world and the short sightedness of our governments. I marvelled at the warm autumn day in which I worked. My thoughts flitted from fishing tactics to fundamentalist regimes, from what’s for lunch to why can’t we train beavers to chop and stack logs?

And then I grasped it; the meaning of wood-fired stoves. While yes, they do save you money on your hydro bills, you guys don’t have them for that reason alone. You burn wood because it allows you time to stack logs, to think, to reflect and to contemplate life, the world and everything in it.

After three hours of steady stacking my chore was done and promise fulfilled. And I felt great, renewed even. My mind felt refreshed and clear. I felt full of Canadian wisdom.

The next morning I ached like an arthritic pack pony but that’s another matter.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Highland Fling

The Highlander, eh; tis the name of my new newspaper (the flappy sheets of printed matter where folk less inclined towards the wonders of our digital world get to read my drivel!).

Where I come from Highlander means northern folk from the Scottish Highlands. I believe our fair Canadian county took its name from the hills and glens of Scotland, too, after pioneering settlers noted a resemblance to their homeland. You may know a different story of course and I’d be the last to refute it because all I have to back mine up is a Wikipedia entry!

But the Scottish Highlands look nothing like Haliburton County, resplendent as it is in its red, green and golden crown of maple and spruce. The Scottish Highlands are more crew cut than crowning glory, having been stripped of their tree cover a long time ago by inhabitants hungry for building materials and fuel. The rugged hills and valleys are now all rocky crags and tussock grass, dotted with purple blooms of heather and the odd fellow in a skirt, sorry kilt!

But then again, you folks, or rather your ancestors, stripped Haliburton County of its trees too a while back, didn’t you.

Don’t deny it: I’ve seen the historic photos of the landscape around the Donald chemical factory and elsewhere nearby. They look like some horror story where the lead role was a mad axe murderer holding a grudge against the local foliage.

Since then, I notice that your trees have been very well behaved. The spruce even grow in rows. That’s what I call keeping them in line (if you’ll pardon the pun). Then again, I can see how you did it. My recent foray into gardening – something alien to me until I landed here in Haliburton – has opened up a whole new world of highly aggressive gadgets that would scare most any plant into submission.

The chain saw; yup, pretty horrific if you’re a tree. Ride-on lawn mowers the size of family cars; something that not many an English garden warrants – we could prune most suburban lawns with a pair of nail scissors in a couple of hours. And then there are weed whackers, what a name! You Canadians certainly tell it how it is. Back in Blighty we have a much more benign version called a strimmer. It runs on electricity rather than roaring into life courtesy of its own engine and is waved around with little more effort than it takes to swing a handbag. The plants don’t take much notice of it and many of the weeds remain standing defiantly tall even after a couple of passes with it. But a weed whacker, there’s a tool.

Strapped in to said dealer or weed destruction, steel toe-caps on, protective eye-wear lashed to my face, I recently vibrated across the garden towards a clump of weeds. Plants, critters and my son Little Z cowered as I strode by. I had spotted a spruce sapling who had decided to rally against the years of wisdom inherited from his forefathers and grow out of line. Vzzzzzz, VZZZZZZZZZZZZ. He got whacked, mob style, out in the open in view of all the other spruce. I felt like I had sent them a message. Stepping back, I growled in a menacing voice: “Mess with me again and I bring out the brush saw.”

But I digress. We were talking about the Highlander, Highlands and all things High Brow. See that, I linked the Highlander with intellectual stuff in the space of eight words! And, apart from this column maybe, your new newspaper will be full of the brightest and best in Haliburton County. We’ll give you the high brow, middle road and low down on what’s what and what’s not, all the way from Dysart to Eyre and McClintock and a whole lot of places in between: not all of them with Scottish names and most of them donning a fine head of trees, some well trained, others an unruly but beautiful mob of red and gold.