Life in the country

Location: Newcastle, Ontario, Canada

Born in Toronto, a degree in Psychology at Carleton in Ottawa, ran a photography business for 10 years from a studio in Parkdale, Toronto, apprenticed with a stained glass artist, and, and, and...

Monday, November 28, 2005

Sunday morning in April

Finn, almost consumed, by the gigantic ferns in our forest.

Sunday mornings are good times where pajamas stay on and rushing is cancelled.

The back door again, with its original glass knob. Later in the summer Tim built a screen for this door so it not only enticed us visually but also by the smell of freshcut grass or the sound of bees droning outside.

Ferns rising in Jamak-ak

Our "Tarzan" tree. Even though largely horizontal this tree flourished and was a great spot to climb and pretend.

Because of all the culling only probably a sampling of what we'll see next year came up.
A different variety of fern resides down by the creek and grows to one's armpits. It feels so primordial you would not be too surprised to see a brontosaurus raise its head with a mouthful of them in his jaw.

Jamak-ak and whale rides…

April, 2005

So why had we moved from the city? We lived in a vital and changing area, close to the beaches so we had the amenities, but not the price tag. Stroller distance to the boardwalk and half a block to the Queen streetcar, lots of daily options were available to us. But we'd had the house broken into and methodically removed of specific things, the car broken into twice, and we did not even have one bedroom which we could call conventional. We did have a funky pretty house that I was particularily attached to. But our needs from our onset of being houseowners had changed from just needing a place to live together when we were a couple, to creating a bedroom out of an old kitchen and looking for another bedroom for our second child. We had also lost our backyard tree, a 150-year-old silver maple that made us both weep when we had to cut it down. It seemed we needed more space. Tim had grown up with land about him and yearned to have that sense back. We could both see the benefits for the children to have fresher air, more land to roam freely and the calmness of a small town. We thought the commute was doable so we jumped, thinking only after we had acted.

The series of events that followed shocked me as I had not quite assimilated the idea that to buy a new house meant to leave our old one. So when we got an acceptable offer I wept. Poor Ronnie, our friend first, and real estate agent second, was flumoxed.

But move we did. Now I see the children walking confidently in our little forest when we go to the "lie-down" field, named by Owen because in the summer, we would walk there and then lie down and look up or go to sleep or tussle or…
Finnie was emerging herself as the winter was still hard for her to manage with her little feet in boots. With warmer weather she loved best to run about without shoes on at all. She was getting a sense of independence and freedom Owen had never had at her age in the city.

Owen had also called a gravel pile near the barn the Whale. Timothy and I needed to negotiate with Owen whenever we needed to take some gravel. We would claim that we were just removing the barnacles and making the whale feel better but he would oversee the removals very carefully. Both Finnie and Owen, and any visiting children, usually migrated to the rocks. I guess it gave them a sense of height, they could play king of the castle, they could take the dump-trucks and excavate loads, or in later summer just sit atop it soaking in the heat from below.

Jamak-ak, also an Owen moniker, was the newly culled cedar grove that had a pile of rocks that became his "circus," where he would have performances. Finnie and Owen are very different in terms of dirt accumulation. Finnie was oblivious to the dirt that amassed on her being, while Owen would fastidiously remove or avoid any outside debris. He's more comfortable with it now but I see that as a city thing. I think Finnie developed her own intense look that was reminiscent of my scary look but I think she may have my love of dirt and growing things.

The swallows returned to the barn and they both got lifted high by Tim to see the eggs and then babies that were birthed in the mud nests attached to the ceiling of the barn. The guana was not nice and we had to use tarps to protect the tractor but we did love their elegant swirling and diving. They got into the barn by a slice of space above the barns doors measuring only a couple of inches. I think they needed to angle just as they went through to negotiate it without touching anything.

We had deer, still do, that started to appear in the back of the field. A female and two little twins. We soon realized why they are called whitetails from the flicker from the twins as they darted about, or ran for the forest as we came out. The mother was not too flighty and would hold her ground somewhat, mindful but not too concerned with us. Spring was giving us all so many reasons to be glad of our decision.

Spring runoff

Our piddly creek became torrential this spring, with the water rising so high that we could not see our "bridge" for some time.

Until the tillings done...

April, 2005
I knew I liked getting my hands dirty. When we had lived in Toronto I had taken our front lawn, rather front patch, and ripped up the grass and laid a path with the help of my friend, Chantal (neither of us knowing how to do this) and planted flowers and bushes in its stead. That little spot of land kept me occupied for hours and gave me a wonderful feeling of contendness.

I was clearly baffled with 17 acres to work. But this was a time to not look at the big picture. I borrowed an ancient but respected rototiller from friends, Ronnie and Simon that had a 100 acres. It was a finicky beast and in the course of bumping and diving amongst the dirt clumps I seemed to have lost an essential cotter pin. Now I could not keep the handle in one place and did not have the thrust I needed to properly till the vegetable patch. Sheepishly the beast was returned and I vowed I would never borrow an important tool of a friend's again.

Next I rented one but did not get told how to operate it and therefore never knew that I had to raise the wheels to get the tines deep enough into the ground. I repeat, this was my learning year. So I lightly tilled and returned the tiller only to find out that I would need to rent one again. Off to a slow start I did finally have the satisfaction of walking behind a tiller that was tilling properly and I could see the ground responding. Dark, moist turned land behind, quaking green weeds and grass in front. I showed little mercy and after the vegetable patch moved to carve a rectangle out of our lawn close to the house that would later be my first flower garden here. The children and Tim watched from the house and gave me wide berth when I came in. I think the glint was back in my eyes.

There had been some patiostones placed in a square near the flower zone. I got myself some protective eyewear and a mallet and bashed the stones into smaller more irregular shaped pieces. They became the cross path to each corner of the flower garden, resembling remotely, flagstones. A cement birdbath from our old house became the center piece.The grass from the new flower garden was transplanted to the area that the patiostones had been. Another chance to reuse something in one area that was not needed anymore in another.

Finnie and Owen played at a distance, enjoying their freedom to roam. They were sometimes the equivalent of two city houses away and yet still on our property and within my eyesite. What a lovely thing to be able to let them explore this way. The main reason we had moved here was manifesting. Our children were going to develop a relationship with nature that they could not have fostered in the city.

Having little kids meant that you never could assume that a project started would be a project finished. To succeed with any projects I had to build into them an ability to stop them quickly and resume them again later. So our days were a mixture of playing outside, learning about the trees and bushes and plants that grew naturally there and then, bits of time that they played together on their own and I worked on the gardens. It was incredibly quenching to see my kids happy and at the same time, my accomplishing something so healing for me.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

At the door…

April, 2005
The back door off the kitchen was a magnet for us. We were always looking out here to see if things had changed. The view from here and the window over the sink never let us walk by without looking out of them. Never in the city could we look out a window and see, basically a park, that was ours to maintain and foster. Massively addictive this land was. I realized that when we had glibly said, on first moving here, the we could just move back to the city if we didn't like it, that we were being naive and that the land was making its imprint on us that would not brush off as easily as we had previously thought. And I am glad that it is not easy to command z, or erase, or reverse or undo what we had done. Changes, good and bad lead in one direction and to try to alter that would be to not live your life as fully as one should. Deciding how to live within the changes was what I was beginning to understand.

View from the kitchen window

March, 2005

Signs of spring…

March, 2005
Finn and Owen hugging in our front field.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

With blinking eyes we emerged...

March-April, 2005
It never fails to amaze me how, every year, regardless of the severity of the winter, the mantle of snow and ice does fall away, revealing tiny, fragile signs of life. Every year. You'd think I'd get it but every winter I have to fight back thoughts that there is simply no way that life below ground could have survived that clamp of Jack Frost.

Well I don't mind being shown that I should have more faith when I see green things sending up seekers of light, pushing through the last bits of snow cowering in the shady spots. All the more interesting for me this year as I had planted nothing, having moved in November, so I did not have any map of the plants here. Wait and see, I'd say. Then I'd get my seed packets and trowel and hover near the door waiting for the moment when it was ok to plant them. Wait and see was too quickly replaced with plan, plan, plan.

I started some seedlings indoors, a great project when there are kids. Depends on the seeds though. Sunflowers start quickly and grow big fast, carrots on the other hand, soon lost some interest for Owen and Finnie as the earth surface doesn't change for oh so long. Then there was the tray burgeoning with basil seedlings. More basil than Italy needed, I had growing in perfect time to have them healthy and strong by the time they could go outside. But a sunny day on our deck with the cover on transformed them to jelly. It was a massacre with complete cruelty, even though unintended. I tried to salvage some but they had gone en mass. Well, I think it was good that I had labelled this year My Learning Year.

Spring was our Ozonol, our ointment of restoration. We all breathed deeper, sucking in the goodness of it and expelling the stress of change. Winter was not the nasty in this, just not the right season to rebuild. Winter was for learning to not think too far forward and to not question our decision. Spring was the time to make this decision the right one. I leapt into the season with an intensity that may at times have scared my family. Don't know why, though sometimes I'd come in from a bout of limb wrestling with tree bits in my teeth and a funny look in my eyes.

You could not keep my inside, from the early morning where I could stand on our deck, shivering with a mint tea, investigating the land for new growth, mid-day when the kids and I would spill outside to run amok in our field, to the evening when I would get an opportunity to go outside on my own to cull the cedar grove to the north of our house. I took this as a unique opportunity to transform an area badly in need of attention.

Timothy had bought us two bow saws, something he was familiar with but was new to me. Wonderful tools, they are simply a sawblade in a rounded grip that allows you to manually trim limbs and small trees. I did. Lots. There was so much overgrowth of the cedars that you could not initially walk one foot in any direction in the grove. By the time I was finished Owen had labelled the place Jamak-ak and created a circus on a rockpile. It was a lovely area, filled with ferns and cool at all times. Great light and mystery in there and I was fully restored always, after a bout of order-restoration there. The dead trees were removed and placed around the vegetable patch so that I could staple gun chicken wire around the garden to theoretically keep out bunnies and deer. Seemed a bit of overkill but we did have both beasties about and I liked the idea of using something discarded from one area and implementing it elsewhere. I guess I was marking my territory, wresting a place I could call home. It was a wonderful thing, tugging and pulling and clearing and letting the land breathe a bit better in places. I was in my element.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Newcastle marina

February, 2005
Colder than a icicle on a penguin's nose.

Snow field

January, 2005
Our son trekking through the field.

First attempt at an ice rink.

February, 2005
So, you can see that level ground is a MUST.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fast forward...

February, 2005
So, if you could only fast forward when you are in a bad patch. But what would really be the result, probably not the bliss one might suppose. Of course, you'd never properly appreciate the good times if you didn't have the comparison. You would be as weak as jelly on a hot day, without being toughened by the tests of life, and you wouldn't have much to say cause people'd just walk away if all you rambled on about was the new car you had, the pot of money you sat on and the next vacation you were heading on. I mean, really, your friends and family have to feel their lives are at least in the running, yes?

But to be looking back on time I do have the rare opportunity to skip over some of the monotonous bits and cut to the spring. Key the lovely classical music that brings forth ideas of birds chirping and leaves growing so fast you can hear them, almost over the music. We did get through the winter and it was not as horrible as I may have led some to believe. We got taken to Florida for Christmas by my parents. Thank heavens for parents, even as we are parents ourselves they still keep rising to the occasion and giving us chances to regress to the carefree children we once were, every once in awhile. So the almost surrealistic world of Sanibel Island with inflatable Santas and pastel palaces, crocodiles and pelicans, was an antidote we needed more than we knew.

Then by the beginning of February, the contractors started to pack up, head out the doors and not come back. The main contractors had totally transformed our top floor to a place we could call home, and did. We felt lonely for awhile as we had come to like having them tromp inside every morning, complaining of the cold, complaining about my coffee and telling silly funny jokes. But there was no space to adopt them and they were in high demand so we sent them on their way and got used to having a second floor.

My husband and I both love shovelling snow and we got our share of that, nice white pristine snow unlike Toronto's brown sugar slush variety. The kids, well one of them, frolicked in the field of snow while I got fitter than I have ever been in my life, carrying the other one to try and keep up with the older one. Owen, the older one, queried one of the first nights of our life in Newcastle, when he was looking at the night sky – What are all those bright lights? Night skies in Toronto are not in the same ball park as the almost piercing beauty of a clear winter night in the country.

We had made some friends, primarily Tracey, Randy, Harper and Abbey. A calm, sweet family we migrated to them as soon as we met them at the Learning Center and we soon were hanging at each others homes, the kids learning to play together. So what do they do as soon as we had bonded – move to the beaches in Toronto, the very area we had left the fall before. We considered this very AWOL of them and pondered giving them a cold shoulder, but spring was coming and we kind of liked them so we let them have this transgression and so we switched lives.

My husband, brave lad that he is, had stoically made the transition from biking (even in the winter) 20 minutes to work when we lived in Toronto, to joining the throngs at the GO station in Oshawa. He was up and gone before we even woke and I literally do not know how he did it every day without much complaint. Some Norwegian Viking blood kicking in for sure. He was the sole breadwinner as I had taken an addition 6 months off after a maternity leave to acclimatize us to the country and arrange childcare for when I returned to work. So money was tight and my linkage in marriage, who was the one that really wanted to be in the country, rarely was as work was still in Toronto. He woke in the dark and came home in the dark. We told him what it looked like here but the weekends were his only opportunity to see it for himself.

Spring WAS coming. This meant more than the sum of its parts. We started to see signs of life and breathed deeply of all these seasonal waxings, shedding some of the heaviness of the waning winter.

Friday, November 11, 2005

One of the government's good ideas...

Late January, 2005
Luckily, our winter fun was not limited to the ice rink I attempted to build as it all flowed to one corner and sat not quite freezing, for quite awhile. Apparently, level ground is a must when deciding where to build a skating zone. My husband and the kids were cajoled to come “play” on it a couple of times but since four bodies quite filled the only frozen space you could only kind of shuffle about and the concept was lost on the kids.

So, even before we had moved I had noticed that right in the center of Newcastle was an Ontario Early Learning Center in the town hall. A drop-in place for parents and kids it was a Godsend. We would pile inside, strip off the wet and cold things, throw them in a corner as the place was filled and no hangers remained, and walk into the smaller of two rooms. Filled with toys, games, books, art supplies and ideas the place gave the kids chances to run amok and meet other kids and for me to connect with other adults and learn their connection to Newcastle. Overseeing us all were the wonderful duo of Blanca and Lisa who ran the center.

Early into our move to Newcastle there was a snowstorm on a morning I had planned to go to the center. Thinking that this weather would not daunt the regular visitors to the center, I was not about to be put off getting there myself. Not wanting my big city connection to be seen as a weakness, I dressed the kids so that they were immobile, wedged them into the two kid stroller, covered the whole contraption with a rain cover that was clamped at the front for the wind and headed out. No sidewalk on the a busy road was the main obstacle. The fact that the stroller was NOT an offroad version was a minor consideration. The two together made me consider how much stubborness can be be dangerous as I timed when I passed under the railroad overpass. This was the narrowest part of the road so I checked for no cars in sight and ran at the stroller to get it at its top speed. Maneuvering was a piece of work as the four wheels all wanted to check out different parts of the road, but we succeeded, got past the overpass and then keeping to the side finally came to the sidewalk about a block from the center.

Feeling buoyed by the closeness I checked the kids, happily stuporous in the heat that was within their “dome.” So we arrived, pushed down my giggly feelings of conquering the nasty country elements and entered the center to the surprised looks of Blanca and Lisa. NOONE else had dared go out on such a wintery day. Here I thought I was going to show the Newcastleonians that I was no bit of fluff and they had wisely just given the center a miss. You see, stubborness has its pitfalls. We did stay and played for an hour though and had Blanca and Lisa's undivided attention. From that day Blanca always seemed to know who we were.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Train passing

December, 2004
As you can see, the trains pass quite close. We found this comforting, like a link to the outside world when this place seemed so remote. If we were outside we would wave our arms off trying to get the engineers to blow their horns. They often appeased us with a loud blast which always made us laugh a bit manically.

Nite house

January, 2005
This was my view from the "ice rink" at night time.


Early January, 2005

So, needless to say, we kind of muscled through last winter, never quite catching our breath, but keeping the family together through what was the penultimate test of the strength of my relationship with my husband. Kind of walking into walls with the amount of change, arranging for electricians to rewire the house, contractors to renovate the 2nd floor, plumbers to replumb the house.

For two weeks, on the sale of our first house we had a significant profit and actually held a cheque for the total. I think we took a picture of this wonderful but short lived financial situation, and then it was gone-to electricians, plumbers, and contractors and we were using up our line of credit fast. They say moving is near the top of the list for stressors, but its exponential when you are going from city to country with little kids and a somewhat shaky marriage. There is no frame of reference and no sense of comparison. You are on your own and although we had friends that admired the guts it took to do this and some that seemed to think we had achieved nirvana, there were moments of true fear where we so wished we had not done this. But we kind of shut down the thinking parts of our brains and just did life. Got up, dressed the kids, went outside and played in the snow, found where to get groceries and even organics, where the gas stations were, managing the strangers fast becoming part of the family that were the contractors transforming our top floor.

THEY were wonderful. Good hardworking folk that invested more than just their time to make our top floor a place we love to be. An open concept haven with timbers above us and a closet built so kids could run from one small entrance around the back to a cave on the other side. The place began to feel like ours. We did not freeze. We got a second car which liberated me and the kids, a wonderful volvo 240 wagon that seemed that it would never fail us, and we were mapping our new territory. We were exiting the worst part of the transition and beginning to see that this might work and it might be really, really good.

Perhaps my finest sense of this was standing in our field one bright moonlit night holding a hose on a patch of ground I had designated for an ice rink. This is what you do in the country. I stood there with breath hanging in the air, mits freezing as the water hit them, so light there were shadows on the ground, when one of the many trains that border our property crossed the overpass and came towards me in the field. He blew his horn to acknowledge me. Pure Canadiana and so impossibly unToronto. Life was good that night.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Looking at Toronto with binoculars...for the first time

November, 2004
My mom, Jean, with Finn,
getting to know our land.

So, unbeknownst to me earlier today, I am starting a blog tonite. Tried to respond to a friends blog and here I am. Here in the country that is. That is also very new to me. Having grown up in the teeming metropolis of Toronto, only deviating for university and post university travelling and the occasional trip somewhere cool and different, I feel very connected and fond of this megacity. I am not intimidated by it, I like the diversity and that you can always find something new to do there and feel it is my home basically. Not so now, as my husband and I and our young children sold our semi-detached, no backyard to speak of, postage-stamp lot, house last November, 2004 and moved to our new home in the outskirts of Newcastle, Ont. Population 8,250.

We now have a detached older house, a beautiful old red barn and 17 acres of land comprising two cool fields, a small forest and a creek. The house needs more work than we have money for, but ideas of what we could do to the house, well they keep coming. We moved in November, after a slightly worrisome scenario of having bought a new place before we sold our current place. Scary but done. We knew we were moving into a house with no insulation in the top floor, in the roof and I had envisioned my two children with chattering teeth and questioning eyes as we tried to keep them warm by burning furniture. We only had one car, as that was all we needed in Toronto, and even that one was not necessary as we often rode our bikes 20 minutes to work and back. And with TTC, it was a questionable indulgence. But now, in the country, on a road with no sidewalks, no car as my husband needed it to get to work, and no knowledge of this little town we were .9km from the center of I truly did wonder what we had done.
But with almost a year under our belt, although I still wonder that somewhat frequently, there are times that I know for certain why we DID do this venture.