Winter, Reconsidered

My emotional connection with winter has a long history. It has rocked back and forth sometimes depending on my geographic circumstances. For the last few years our alliance has been strained.

This year, I’ve been trying to redefine my relationship to the season of short days and long nights, relentlessly prolonged and wrapped in gray in my neck of the woods.

During the coldest months, the sun’s rays rarely make an appearance and not just because of the brief period of daylight. Overcast is a generous word for many of our wintry days. Of the first fourteen days of this new year, we had perhaps two sunny days. That was the beginning of a season-long trend.

Even those rare days are frequently unhelpful when it comes to getting a dose of Vitamin D. The frigid temperatures allow for only a couple of small skin slivers—between toboggan and eyebrows and between lower eyelids and muffler. Even eyes may be covered with sunglasses, particularly when sun and snow combine to create blinding brightness. And sometimes the snow—especially if it’s deep, icy, or drifts high and unevenly—makes the outdoors a dangerous proposition, particularly for those of us who are more susceptible to breakage because of age.

Nonetheless, I’m taking measures.

  • I treat all my senses: my most worn sweater that wraps me like a cocoon, thick, soft socks, and a plush comforter make me feel as if I’m burrowing into the neck of a friendly Old English Sheepdog.
  • I surround myself with the soft glow and herbal scent of candles. I play soothing music that lifts my spirit—mostly classical, folk, and Celtic.
  • I try to hold an intentional smile, if only as subtle as the Madonna’s. It brings comfort to those around me, and my spirits unconsciously lift.
  • I sip tea, slowly, and look at the outdoors. Really look at it, noticing all the nuances of winter’s offerings, playing with words to find the most descriptive—and life-affirming—ways to describe the scene before me.

The work is all-encompassing. But so far it has proven worth the effort. Winter will still be around for a while up here on the diagonal, so I’m still working at it.

Our society has a tendency to think of winter as a time of death. Green grass and summer wildflowers have ‘died;’ leaves have fallen and dried making deciduous trees look dead. I’ve challenged myself this year to look at nature differently.

Lawns may no longer be emerald, but they will regrow; the grass is not dead. We have a tendency to overlook the subtle tan shades of tall grasses, but they provide rustling interest on a winter day, even more when they wave gently in a breeze.

Winter isn’t a braggart. Its marvels are less noticeable than the lushness of spring and the vibrancy of summer. In those seasons, winter’s elusive wonders are hidden. But now—now they surround us. Now is the time to revel in them.

When I manage to get out of doors, whether for a walk in the woods or a scenic drive, I look again. I search for positive words, alternatives to bleak, dreary, and overcast. Words like contemplative, silver-tinged skies, reflective, pensive. Winter calls us to introspection. Is that why we resist it?

On one typically cold but unusually bright morning, the roofs of the houses we passed on our way to town were covered with the thinnest veneer of frost. As we rode by, sunlight played on the icy crystals, creating a glittery shimmer, as if the shingles were made of twinkling fairy lights.

The skeletal trees, bare of their green camouflage, fill the landscape with sculptural architecture. Their nakedness allows me to appreciate aspects hidden at other times of the year.

The branches of some reach upward, as if in praise of the sky. Some trees are encircled by draping branches, reminiscent of welcoming arms ready to enfold me and offer comfort. Some trees are so gnarled and craggy it’s easy to imagine they sit on the edge of an enchanted forest.

About now, with trees looking as bereft of life as they have for months, the sap begins rising, an event which will go entirely unnoticed except for syrup makers and those who happen to fell a tree at that crucial time, but pivotal to the reemergence of the verdant leaves we long for.

Subtle color variations and not-so-subtle textural differences in tree bark differentiate one species from another. Touch a sycamore or crape myrtle, with bark as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Consider the trees with peeling bark—paper thin birches and rugged shagbark hickories, or the finely ribbed bark of the pin oak and the thick, deeply furrowed bark of the black locust. Bark with overlapping plates, like black birch, make me think of armadillos and scaly dinosaurs.

As I look more closely at trees, I see mosses as dark as midnight and lichens, some the palest green, eerily fluorescent in the dark. In the woods outside my kitchen window sits the tree stump. Over time, moss has begun to creep upwards, slowly covering its sides. Today, I saw for the first time that the entire stump is blanketed in moss as soft as down, hinting at a fairyland.

There are trees with burls and hidey holes. Who goes there?

A cyclops tree?

Winter serves a purpose. Plants store up their reserves, ready to explode with new life as warmer weather and more hours of sunlight appear. The flora does what it needs to do during winter. Animals know how to handle winter, too. Some, like plants, go dormant to preserve strength, feeding off stores of fat until nature is ready to provide its bounty.

What if we humans were to welcome winter in all its aspects and live with it, not against it, as the rest of nature seems to do so well? What if we turned off the electronics, indeed perhaps electric lights when the sun goes down. What if we did those quiet chores best done in front of a fire or by candlelight with a cup of hot chocolate or tea at our sides? What if, instead of staring at some screen, we talked to each other, played games together, put together a jigsaw puzzle, corresponded with relatives and other friends, read aloud or silently, wrote, contemplated? What if we used winter to restore ourselves, to create, to maintain?

Would our family and internal lives be richer? I think they might. Would we welcome winter as we welcome spring? Would we be better primed for what life brings in the next season? We might begin to treasure and even look forward to long winter evenings as a time of personal and family enrichment.

We can’t beat winter. Why not join it?

 

Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cows’ water supply with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. Even I knew it was pretty impressive encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns (not that I knew to call them that).

By contrast, our small wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

Traveling with Airbnb

(Part of a series from a recent trip the Gnome and I took to Nova Scotia.  To read from the beginning, start here.)

How do two naturally reticent travelers get to know the people of their host country? It occurred to us that staying in real homes where we’d get to meet honest-to-goodness Nova Scotians on a more than fleeting basis might be a good way to do it, so we decided to take a chance on Airbnb rentals. (Disclaimer: I have no relationship with Airbnb except as a customer.)

Ultimately, we were looking for safe, clean, convenient places to lay our heads, perhaps cook a couple of meals, and occasionally run a load of laundry. And we wanted a reasonable amount of privacy. But we also wanted to get to know our hosts, where possible.

With those goals in mind, we began scouring Airbnb sites at each of the locations we anticipated spending a night. We splurged a time or two because we were so taken with a particular listing, but overall, we booked on the cheap. With service fees, taxes, and in some cases cleaning fees, our nightly rentals ranged from a mere $47 (for a whole house!) to $103 (for a bedroom and private bath, but the location—and our hosts—made it worth the price.)

We stayed in a couple of garage apartments attached to the host families’ homes but as private as we wanted. In one, our laps were kept warm by Mustache, the hosts’ loving cat.

 

 

We stayed in the upstairs loft of a former nautical museum. How’s that for quaint? And our host, Ginger, wowed us with her homemade whole wheat rolls.

 

We stayed in a former B&B honeymoon suite complete with waterfall Jacuzzi, right on the banks of the Annapolis Royal River.

 

The gracious Cheticamp hosts where we rented a bed/bath suite, are former teachers who once lived in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, largest, and most northwestern province. Their home, shared with a cat and seven former sled dogs, is filled with Inuit art. Each morning we were greeted with a full breakfast, not at all the norm with Airbnb. We hugged our goodbyes while the dogs sang for us.

 

Private home so no pics, but here are a couple of views of the river just outside and of one of our hosts’ seven dogs.

A couple of sites we picked from Airbnb listings were more traditional B&Bs, though small ones with just two or three rooms each. Both featured shared baths along the lines of boarding houses of the past. That worked out just fine; we never had to compete for bathroom time. Salty Rose’s and Periwinkle Cafe, run by a pair of sisters, was above a combo bakery and craft shop. We got a complimentary breakfast and left with a few locally made souvenirs. At the Crab Apple Inn, we were treated to a full breakfast (as well as complimentary homemade wine the night before). These places were almost as cozy and familial as single-family Airbnb spots.

 

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A couple of places we stayed were touted as 200-year-old homes. That really appealed to us. And there were two places where the host wasn’t on site and we were completely on our own. In Halifax, we stayed in a modern apartment in a residential neighborhood in easy walking distance of eateries and no more than a five-minute drive from every site on our long list of places to visit. So convenient! A colorful, fully decorated home greeted us in Cape Breton’s Sydney, where we had a good view of the Sydney River from the living room window.

 

 

Each of these places had its own charms. And with each, the Gnome and I took a little informal survey. What did we especially like or dislike? It was a way to hone our preferences for future searches. And let me tell you, sometimes we had to scratch our heads to find a ‘dislike.’ We never had trouble coming up with a wow factor, though.

Two places really stood out for us. One was billed as a ‘former prospector’s cottage.’ We had the whole rustic place to ourselves on a quiet country road in rural eastern Nova Scotia. It reminded us of our long-ago dream of finding and loving an old farmhouse in the country. We really loved this place. We fell in love with our host, Gail, too. Maybe it was because we’re the same age. Maybe it’s because we saw the ‘old hippie’ in each other.

Or maybe it was her keen insight. She sensed how much we loved this maritime province. As we were chatting, she looked deep into our eyes with her witchy ones, an enigmatic smile forming on her face, and out popped these words: “You’re going to move here!” Of course, she didn’t know how bound by love we are to our own home, but neither did she know that we once seriously considered moving to Nova Scotia nor the hold it’s had on us all these years. Gail brought us warm eggs from her henhouse for our breakfast. Yum!

 

Gail calls this a heritage home. We call it perfect.

The other stop that filled our hearts wasn’t in Canada but Vermont, in the charming village of Newbury. When we read the description of this 200-year-old home and its location in an honest-to-goodness New England village, with a village commons, town hall meetings, and all. (Newhart, anyone?), we added a day to our trip so we could make this detour. In theory, we prefer to nix places where we have only a bedroom in a private home; we can’t help feeling that we’re imposing—never mind that the hosts have chosen this path and we’re paying for the space. Irrational, I know, but we feel like we have to tiptoe and whisper.

This time it was different. In essence, we had the whole downstairs to ourselves. But it was more than that, and more than the charm of an old home in a quintessential New England village that dates to the revolutionary period. It was also our host, Linda. You can read more about her and our stay in her home here.

No pics of Linda’s private home, but I snagged this one of the village store from Creative Commons.

In a head-to-head competition between traditional lodgings and this entrepreneurial one, Airbnb wins hands down in my book, at least for this kind of trip. Our experience was so enriched by these homey, sometimes quirky, stays—and ever so much more by the hosts who extended us such hospitality and friendship. Thanks to every one of you!

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(Originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Joggins and Home

(This post continues a series on a recent road trip the Gnome and I took to Nova Scotia. To ‘travel’ with us from the beginning, click here.)

Bittersweet is the best that can be said for what was to be our last day in Nova Scotia. To ensure as much time as possible in Cape Breton, we had planned this to be a long travel day. It would take us practically to the border with New Brunswick, in the tiny rural community of Joggins. So tiny that AAA couldn’t find it to map out this portion of our trip. So tiny a number of Nova Scotians didn’t recognize the name. Yet, Joggins is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs contain the most complete fossil record of life during the Coal Age, 300 million years ago. That’s a full hundred million years before the dinosaurs, so these fossils, preserved in the very place they lived, are the dinosaurs’ ancestors. Some of the fossils found here are giant insects. According to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs website, this is the only place on earth where you can view these rare plant and animal fossils in situ. Well, I was impressed! 

The tide is out at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. It will rise by an astounding 43 feet at high tide, cutting off access to the beach area.

See the tiny person in the middle foreground. You must walk down many, many steps from the top of the cliffs to reach the beach, something like 75, as I recall. That’s about six or seven stories! But we did it.

Giant insect?

We stayed the night at a true bed and breakfast inn, though we’d found it through Airbnb. We were joined by a young couple driving from Halifax to be with family for Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. The four of us enjoyed a visit in the living room where we shared our respective’ backgrounds and learned a bit about cultural similarities and differences while enjoying some of our host’s homemade wine. Not only does Bridget own and run the B&B and make wine, but she’s also begun a business manufacturing buckwheat pillows—and she’s a former international professional singer, besides. (And her breakfast was fabulous!)

Crab Apple Inn, Joggins, Nova Scotia

The next day saw us driving across New Brunswick and into Maine. Though the leaves had only just begun changing color in Nova Scotia, they were really showing off in New Brunswick.

 

Not be the sharpest photos ever taken, but hey . . .

we were going 110! (km, of course)

Crossing the border back into the States was harrowing—at least the waiting was. We’d read that we needed to itemize all our purchases and have them and all receipts readily available for inspection, so we’d spent a long couple of evenings getting our documentation and souvenirs organized. Though we’d practically sailed into Canada (no lines and only a single benign question by the border agent), we waited here for close to forty-five minutes. Plenty of time for us to begin feeling guilty for merely imagined offenses. Cameras were watching from every angle. We tried to look innocent and nonchalant. Did that make us look like crooks instead? Our unease only increased when the border patrol unlocked and entered the RV in line in front of us.

Finally, it was our turn. We were asked the nature of our visit, if we’d enjoyed our stay, and whether we’d purchased anything other than souvenirs, personal gifts, and incidentals. That was it. A lot of worry for nothing.

In Maine, we made a little detour to stay in Seal Harbor, right at an entrance to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always yearned to visit. Was it exhaustion as we were nearing the end of our travels? Was it being surrounded by so many leaf-peekers and their vehicles after so much Nova Scotia tranquility? Whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed. It was the only disappointment of our twenty-five-day journey, but it was about to be made up for in a big way!

We made one last detour before the big push to get home. When we’d come across an Airbnb listing in the small village of Newbury, Vermont, we added a day to our itinerary just so we could take it in. Everything about our host, her home, her village seemed so iconically New England.

And so it turned out to be. The home we stayed in is almost two hundred years old on a street of similarly aged residences, mostly modest clapboard homes with gabled fronts. Most of the village’s structures were built either between 1790 and 1860 or in the ten years following a devastating fire in 1913.

Not every residential neighborhood is on a town’s Main Street, which, in this case, is also Vermont Highway 5. Never was there a quieter thoroughfare. Between the residences is the core of the village, the Village Common, a large green space for public use. The village hall, village school, and Methodist Church sit on one edge of the Common. The entire village, flanked by the Connecticut River, is a historic district.

Simply idyllic. Just our style.

Linda, our host, is a professional photographer. She works in black and white, uses old cameras with actual film, and has her own darkroom. Like the Gnome, she collects cameras. (I told her she should count them before we left–wink, wink.)

She was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of her charming village the next morning. We passed the Village Common, the school, the church, the post office, the village hall, the public library. We stopped for chats with other morning strollers. We talked about the village’s history and Vermont’s fabled town meetings. We took in the village store (the oldest country store in Vermont) for a steaming cup of coffee and yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, then sat on the steps to chow down. We dropped in at the bank to study old black and white pictures of the fire.

The bank is closed on Saturdays, but our host has a key. (It seems that the few villagers who lock their doors share their keys with the neighbors.) Linda loves her hometown and its history, and it shows.

Unfortunately, sometime between our return home and getting to this point in my travel diary, the last two hundred or so photos mysteriously disappeared from our camera. I had to resort to Google to find a couple of photos to share. 

Newbury Village Store. Photo credit: redjar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tenney Public Library, Newbury Village, VT. Photo credit: Magicpiano [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Newbury Village UCC Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/NewburyVT_UCCChurch.jpg

Just because our travels are over, don’t think I’m through writing about Nova Scotia, There are still a couple of reflective posts (and, of course, photos), so I hope you’ll come back to see what they are.

A Couple of Nova Scotia’s Historical Sites

(This post is part of a series about a recent trip the Gnome and I recently made to Nova Scotia. To travel along with us from the beginning, start here.)

In previous posts about our visit to Nova Scotia, I’ve mentioned a couple of sites that deeply moved me, promising to delve into them later. Today, I’m keeping that promise with memories and photos of our visits to Grand Pre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

A little history is called for here. The Canadian encyclopedia entry about the Acadians of Grand Pré begins this way: “Soldiers rounding up terrified civilians, expelling them from their land, burning their homes and crops ‒ it sounds like a 20th century nightmare in one of the world’s trouble spots, but it describes a scene from Canada’s early history, the Deportation of the Acadians.” The story of the expulsion of Acadians from Grand Pré is painfully evocative of our own Trail of Tears history, when the Cherokee were led on a forced march from the east to Oklahoma.

In French, the forced deportation was known as le grand dérangement. Sounds fitting. Since 1604, Acadians had created a thriving, peaceful community in the Bay of Fundy area. During their 150 years here, they developed an impressive dyke system to control the bay’s high tides, a method still in use today; they developed and maintained a rich agriculture; they created a massive and gorgeous landscape

The arduous task of building earthen dykes to hold back the Bay of Fundy’s high tides

A  typical Acadian farmstead

An image of  an Acadian day in the fields

A portion of the 3200-acre landscape of Grand Pre’

Meanwhile, the British and French were engaged in a long tug of war over Nova Scotia. The Acadians had sworn neutrality in any conflict between the two countries, but that wasn’t enough for the British governor. In 1755, he hatched a plan to surround their churches, threatening entire families with bayonets, while breaching the dykes and burning homes and crops. The first 3,000 deportees were sent to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia while 7,000 more were shipped to other British colonies, France, and the Caribbean during the next seven years.

Try putting your family in this scene:  panicked flight, trying to stay together, leaving everything–everything–behind forever.

People found themselves left, like Longfellow’s Evangeline, to wander fruitlessly in search of the families they’d been separated from. That, too, sounds all too familiar in today’s troubled times. (Only later did Acadians find their way to Louisiana because of their familiarity with the language. Thus did the Cajun culture become established.)

 

 

Detail of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s heroine, Evangeline. It graces the entrance to the memorial church built in the early 20th century which serves as a museum today. It was a church at this approximate location where British soldiers set up headquarters, rounded up the village’s men and boys, and told them their land, livestock, and almost everything they owned were to be forfeited to the Crown, and that their families were to be deported.

By 1764, the British government allowed small groups of Acadians to return, but they didn’t return to their former lands—nothing was left for them there. Instead, those who returned settled on the mainland and in Cape Breton. It was, indeed, as the Acadian Shores restaurant patron we overheard had said, a shameful moment in Nova Scotia’s history.

But Nova Scotia can at least be proud of how it owns up to inglorious historical moments. I was impressed by this trait both here and at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, located in Halifax.

Even before you pay your admission fee to the immigration museum, the Wheel of Conscience almost smacks you in the face with its raw power. A circular steel structure about six feet in diameter, the wheel includes names of the approximately one thousand Jews who were aboard the MS St. Louis in May 1939, the eve of World War II. They were fleeing Nazi Germany, seeking and being refused entry into Canada and other countries, including the United States. With nowhere to go, the ship was forced to return to Germany where a quarter of its passengers ultimately died in concentration camps. 

 The kinetic sculpture also features four rotating, interlocking gears, each one larger than the one before and each emblazoned in red with a single word—from smallest to largest: hatred, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. As visitors study the sculpture, they can’t help but see their own reflected faces looking back at them.

Inside, the exhibits are equally powerful. The museum is located in the very place, Halifax’s Pier 21, where more than a million immigrants came into Canada between 1928 and 1971. It’s logical that the museum would tell what that experience was like.

But the museum is more than that. It also tells the story of 400 years of immigration to Canada, and it takes an even broader approach, looking at refugee life as a whole, documenting through both visual and oral exhibits the horrors that force people to leave their home countries.

What horrific conditions would cause you to make this kind of journey? For how long? To what unknown future?

 

 

Imagine living in a tent this size with your entire family and all your very limited possessions, buckets for washing yourselves, your food, your dishes, and more. Imagine living here for up to eighteen years–or more? What would have brought you here?

Some of these painful exhibits come with a warning: “Not suitable for some visitors.” I tend to shy away from such stories, but I think we should force ourselves to face them so we can remember—cannot forget—the realities that send people fleeing all they know in hopes of finding a better life, a safer place, for their families. I did not photograph them.

Among other displays we visited were life-size replicas of a ship’s cabin, a life raft meant for eight that carried as many as thirty refugees, a child’s trunk, a family’s crate carrying everything they could cram in.

You can read notes handwritten on cardboard luggage tags from previous museum visitors who had immigrated, and you can watch videos of immigrants telling their personal stories. As moving as these exhibits are, what touched me most was finding myself in the company of a number of immigration ‘veterans,’ individuals who had landed at the immigration center in Halifax—at this very site when they were mere children. Other visitors were children of immigrants who had come through the port of Halifax. It was truly humbling to hear their stories, to be in their presence.

We didn’t want our visit to Nova Scotia to be touristy; we didn’t intend to spend much time inside museums. Our trip was meant to be about getting a feel for day-to-day life in the province and getting to know real-life Bluenosers while soaking in the phenomenal natural beauty of this place. But I’m really glad we took time out to visit these two sites. They, too, tell a story about the real Nova Scotia. And the rest of the world, in the past and, unfortunately, the present. They remind us about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as well as hope and the possibility of redemption.

This moving piece of public art, “The Emigrant,” near the Immigration Museum, pays tribute to those who have said goodbye to their families, hopefully temporarily, in search of a better life for all of them.

(Check back next time for more of our Nova Scotia travels.)