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Polar Opposites

At Berton House last winter, Julien shot timelapses of the Northern Lights from the kitchen window. Back home in Cape Breton, we decided to take those timelapses, add a soundscape, and pitch it to Lumière, Sydney's art-at-night-festival. The result was Polar Opposites, a multimedia video installation we projected onto the side of the Royal Hotel in downtown Sydney.

Polar Opposites has been making the rounds--it was part of New Glasgow's Art at Night Festival, as well as Dawson's City's (s)hiver. The photos, below, were taken by Blair Douglas during this year's (s)hiver. The video was projected onto the front of Bill Big's Blacksmith Shop.

Collaborating with Julien on Polar Opposites, in part, inspired me to write my essay, "Permaculture on the Permafrost," which is forthcoming now available from Canadian Notes and Queries. The essay is about a bunch of things, but, particularly, the benefits of arts collaborations and building communities using permaculture design techniques.

As part of Lumière, Julien and I were asked to give a talk about art and community. So we talked about how Polar Opposites came about, and I highlighted some points from my CNQ essay. The talk is now on YouTube (and embedded, below).

NDub's Finest Wins KOTI 2016

NDub's Finest, the BEST skateboard team in the CBRM, won this year's KOTI (King of the Island), an annual skate competition put on by local skate shop, Ollie Around. Congrats, guys!

You can watch their winning video entry, below. All the team's videos are posted here.

(and even if you know nothing about skateboarding, the video is worth the watch. It's super entertaining and funny as fuck)

ndubs finest - ollie around koti 2016 from Julien Strasfeld on Vimeo.

Philippe Muhleep

Power

It’ll begin like this. With the realization that your partner of ten years is an abusive narcissist and you have to leave him immediately. At the exact same time, your boss you like at the job you like quits, and is replaced by a raging, abusive asshole. You’ll go to your union for help, but your union is spineless and useless, gives you bad advice, doesn’t stick up for you, doesn’t do the job it's paid to do. You need to consult with your human rights officer, but she’s fucking your boss. In fact, she’s pregnant with his baby and instead of being shocked, people think it’s funny. You’ll turn to your co-workers, some of whom you thought were friends, and they’ll tell you you’re exaggerating, they’ll turn their backs on you, desperate to protect their own backs, afraid to admit that if this could happen to you, it most certainly could, and will, happen to them. The social worker you’re assigned and the provincial human rights officer you ask for help stop returning your emails. You’ll call your mom and when you say you want to leave your job, she’ll yell at you and tell you that you’ll never grow up, that you quitting your job is just one more way to avoid having kids and your not having kids means you’ll never understand her. She tells you you’ve gotten too much in life and she laughs at your ideas and rages at your choices and you decide, after decades of these conversations, it’s time to not call her anymore.

You come home one day from work broken. You can’t breathe from crying. You go to your doctor and he puts you on sick leave. You go away for three months as far away from your house as you can get, to the other side of the country not too far from the Arctic circle. The cold town you go to is so warm and welcoming that you finally realize you don’t have to put up with that shit back home. That no person, no job, no salary is worth your mental health. You admit to yourself you’re depressed. You admit you need to heal. You realize it’s going to take a really long time and that scares you. You realize you’ve been living other people’s lives all your life instead of your own. You realize you need to figure out who you are, what you want, and how you want to live. You decide to go home and quit your job.

But the quitting won’t be easy. It’ll be long and drawn out. Your friends and family will abandon you, but new people, practically strangers, will support you. You will find love where you thought there was nothing.

To heal, you will do the things that have always felt good. You will read books and write stories and knit socks. You will walk and take photos. You will make art and grow food. You will put your hands in the dirt and feel its energy. You will plant seeds in that dirt and watch them grow into giant, towering, sprawling plants. You will feel the warm sun on your skin, the wind on your face, and it will revive you and grow you, too.

You will be blamed for being harassed. You will be blamed for making a fuss. Human resources will resent your accusations. You will realize that big systems enable abuse, protect abusers, and you will want to turn your back on those systems and build your own. You will meet with your union rep and new human rights officer one last time and you will start to sob in front of them. You will cry for their uselessness, you will cry for all the women you know who are also being abused, who are also struggling through their own pain. You will tell them you are sick of feeling so fucking awful. You will sob and spit those words. And then you will go home, through a cold, dark rain, to your warm woodstove, to your loving partner, to your cozy house and beautiful garden, and you will quit your shitty job.

And you will be able to do it. You will do it because all your life you never assumed anything was forever. You always had a Plan B. And this time, the Plan B was a Fuck Off Fund. You knew that good job wouldn’t last 'cause no job ever lasts. Nothing ever lasts. So you saved your money just in case. And in the quitting, inside the scariness of it, the insecurity, you will feel secure. Because you saved your money when everything and everyone thinks it’s better to spend. You will realize that there is nothing more empowering than having a backup plan. And now you have power. Now you can walk away, wave your two middle fingers in the air, and tell every asshole who ever made you feel like shit to fuck off

And now all you have is time. And now you wake up each day and look forward to the day. It'll begin like this because now you know who you are and what you want to do. You are forty-one and you are going to start living.

How to Garden in January

It’s the middle of January, the dead of winter. Today the clouds are heavy and grey with snow. Last week was bookended by two snowstorms and this week more snow’s in the forecast. I love winter. I love the quiet, the blue sky and ocean framed by white snow and clouds. I love skiing and skating and long, slow afternoons sitting and reading or knitting in front of my woodstove or listening to records while staring out the window. Winter is such an inner time—indoor activities, inner thoughts. And yet my thoughts keep turning outdoors to gardening and farming.

A lot of people put their gardens to bed for winter in the fall. But this year I wanted to give four-seasons gardening a try. I’ve discovered, with a bit of planning and know-how, that you can get fresh veggies from the garden year round.

Last week, during a melt and thaw, I harvested veggies from my garden—kale, Brussels sprouts, and a coupla carrots. I made a big kale salad and roasted pork chops from Thyme for Ewe farm. It was a celebration of the food, a little party in the middle of a winter week, just Julien and me and our garden-fresh vegetables. In January!

This past garden season I didn’t really have any goals. I knew I wanted to expand my garden (dig up a coupla new plots) and plant some fruit trees and bushes. But I also wanted to try some season extending and got Niki Jabbour’s fantastic book The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener. Two things happened because of this book: 1) I increased my garden’s yield and 2) I extended my growing season. For months we haven’t bought any produce from the grocery store (except potatoes). Which means eating a lot of pumpkins and squash—and finding new ways to eat pumpkin and squash.

Harvesting veggies from a winter garden takes a bit of planning—essentially, gardening in January really means doing the bulk of the gardening before January. It’s not like I was able to put seeds in the ground in November and get kale in January. It means planting the right veggies at the right time. It means paying attention to maturity dates and hours of sunlight. ‘Cause after 10 hours of sunlight, stuff stops growing. Here’s a list of things I had to do:

1) Plant the right veggies. That means cold-hardy and cold-tolerant veggies. I’m not harvesting tomatoes right now. Winter is all about kale. And kale cousins (the brassica family). I also planted new veggies I’ve never tried—mâche, mizuna, claytonia (care of Annapolis Seeds). Plus root veggies (carrots, beets). Some herbs, like parsley, are cold-hardy, too.

2) Plant cold-hardy veggies at the right time. A lot of the kale I have out in the garden I planted in the spring and summer—then I just left it out there, either covered up or totally exposed (seriously—nothing seems to kill kale). Those Brussels sprouts I harvested? I planted in late spring (seeded indoor: 15.04.18; planted out: 15.06.23). Same with the carrots. I also planted the mizuna, etc., in late summer/early fall, so it’d have a chance to start growing before we went below 10 hours of sunlight (note: nothing’s actually growing right now—it’s just sitting in stasis waiting to grow once the sunlight increases). The mizuna, etc., is in a plot I’ve been calling my “spring hunger gap patch”—my hope is once the sunlight increases it’ll start growing again in time for a late winter/early spring harvest—that time of year when almost all my storage and freezer crops have been eaten and I usually have to wait till April or May for fresh veggies. Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait till April or May.

3) Pay careful attention to “mature by” dates on seed packages and know when your first frost date is for your region. Niki Jabbour goes into this in a lot more detail, but basically you gotta time your late summer plantings for fall/winter harvests with the date the plant is expected to mature. So, say you wanna plant some spinach. If the maturity date is 45 days, then count back from your first expected frost date (and add a week or 2 just in case). Since I live in Hardiness Zone 5b/6a (map) my first frost date is usually around October 15-31 (proximity to the ocean usually gives us a later frost date—our first light frost was 15.10.19—didn’t get a really hard frost till November). So, for an Oct. 15 harvest, I shoulda planted my spinach seeds around the first week of September or the last week of August.

This part takes a lot of planning and it’s tough to get it exact ‘cause there’s so many things that can affect the growth of a plant. My mizuna, etc. patch became the “spring hunger gap patch” ‘cause I planted those veggies really late (on October 4). But, luckily I already had a lot of kale in the garden.

4) Cover your veggies to keep them “warm.” There’s lots of ways you can cover your plots for winter: cold frames, row cover, low or mini hoop tunnels made of plastic, straw bales, or a straw/leaves mulch (again, check out Jabbour’s book for more details on covering your crops). I opted for mini hoop tunnels and straw mulch. I used some leftover plastic I had from a mattress I got when I moved into my house four years ago, then I covered the edges with straw. I also covered my carrots with straw. Because the plants are cold-hardy, you’re not really trying to make sure they don’t freeze—you’re just protecting them from the elements. Also, once it snows, snow acts as an insulator. I’ve been making sure I dig out my tunnels after each snow as I want the sun to warm and eventually grow the veggies. If you’re not gonna eat the veggies till spring, you can keep the tunnels buried in snow until spring.

Fun story: I’m always trying to keep my costs super low when it comes to gardening. So, on the lookout this fall for straw, I put an ad on Kijiji after Hallowe’en asking for people’s straw bale “decorations.” I got a few phone calls—and quite a few free straw bales in the process!

5) Harvest your veggies at the right time of day. This is a tip from Niki Jabbour—between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. is the best time to harvest winter veggies as they have time to defrost, slowly, outside. Harvesting earlier or later means a much faster, indoor defrost which also means mushy greens. I didn’t know about this when I harvested my Brussels sprouts last week but thankfully I harvested them sometime in the afternoon. Although, I don’t think this would happen with kale ‘cause, nothing kills kale.

***

I moved to Cape Breton in January four years ago and I remember going to the Superstore in Sydney River to get groceries, looking at the selection of veggies and thinking, I’m gonna get scurvy! The selection was pathetic—sad wilted greens, bruised eggplants, tasteless, white tomatoes--everything from California or Mexico or South America. “We’re at the end of the line,” a friend’s dad said recently about our groceries. “It’s like they forget about us.” And now vegetable and fruit prices are skyrocketing, thanks to our shitty dollar. When it’s dark and snowy out, it’s so important to eat well, but, especially in Cape Breton, it seems so difficult.

Flash forward four years and I’m pulling fresh veggies outta my garden in January. I like to imagine Cape Bretoners and others turning their backs on grocery stores, saving money, and eating well. With time and planning, soil and seeds, it’s entirely possible.

***

ETA: I also found some cold-weather gardening advice, plus plans for building a really great cold frame/raised bed, on Community Forests International's website. CFI is doing GREAT work in what is one of the epicentres for organic gardening in the Maritimes: Sackville, New Brunswick.

Special thanks to Leonard Vassallo of Blue Heron Farm, who first introduced me to the idea of season extension and four-seasons gardening.

 

My Minolta X-570

Sometimes, when I remember, I shoot pictures on film. I have an old Minolta X-570 (circa 1983, when they were first made) which I got in Toronto at Henry’s around 1999/2000. I say “when I remember” ‘cause it’s so much easier—and cheaper—to grab my digital camera or iPhone. I used to use the Minolta a lot—it was my primary camera—and then I got my first digital camera (a Canon PowerShot SD1000 Elph), and, just like that, I was taking digital photos and my Minolta started collecting dust. I probably would have kept taking photos on film if practically every film lab hadn’t shut down at roughly the same time. That was around 2006, when this photo was taken on my way to the St. Peter’s Abbey writing retreat, in Saskatchewan. I like to call this photo "Self Portrait with Tampon Dispenser." :)

Julien’s a photographer, so when we started dating, I showed him my Minolta and said it wasn’t working properly. He took a look at it, and it turns out I had the batteries in it backwards. Lol! Once he got it working, I started using it again. I even took the camera on our first date, up to Ingonish Beach.

I still haven’t gotten those Ingonish Beach photos developed, but, that’s ok. It was a bit of an adjustment, at first, storing the film in the fridge or freezer to wait till I had the money or found a place to develop the film. I finally did find a place—the Antigonish Five to a Dollar store. Turns out they have one of the last film labs left in Nova Scotia. I brought them 6 rolls of my film last spring and then Julien scanned them. And I finally got around to posting a few of the photos on a film photo page.

Taking film and waiting to develop it is a great way to practice patience. Even years ago, when I lived in Toronto, I could get a spent roll of film developed within an hour. Film, just ten years ago, was much more immediate. And digital, well, it’s faster than saying “instant.” What a treat it is to finally see film I shot two or more years ago. When everything now is fast, film is such a lovely and rewarding way to slow down.

Don’t get me wrong: I love digital, and I love Instagram. But I forgot how gorgeous film is—the depth of field, the painterly colours—even looking at a film photo brings you back to the place it was taken so much more than digital. You really sink into the photo. I just gotta start remembering to take my Minolta with me whenever I go for a walk.

On Foraging, Free Folk, and Cranberries

A couple of weeks back, Sara and I went foraging for cranberries. Cranberries grow wild all over Cape Breton—particularly in boggy/wet/moist places on and around cliffs beside the ocean. So picking cranberries can be a rather picturesque activity, especially if the weather’s warm like it was when we went picking. I ended up picking a full bag of berries—probably at least a couple of pounds worth (Edit: almost 4 pounds!). And there’s plenty more out there.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about foraging, about gardening and living simply and sustainably, about how to best go about having a big life while making little money. When I quit my (shitty) job back in July, a lot of people asked me, in a kinda panicked way, “But, what will you do?” as if working a job is all one can do. Then one day I bumped into a former colleague and before I could even explain to her what I’d be doing post-shitty job, she simply said, “you’re a writer.” And I was all, omg! I am! Writing may not make me a tonne of money, but it does make me happy, and being happy is a hell of a lot more important than working a misery-inducing but well-paying job.

It’s not something a lot of people think. Even though everyone wants to be happy (I mean, no one would say, hey, I’d rather be unhappy), most people work far too much, give too much to their jobs, and neglect the parts of their life that are meaningful and non-job, that actually make them happy (i.e., family, community, exercise). Lots of people know they’re too busy, and yet, no one does anything to slow down, simplify, and be happy. Sadly, most people would rather have money than time, and believe that a steady pay cheque and full time job are the keys to happiness. But, guess what? They’re not and our communities, and health, are suffering.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s super scary to quit a job, especially when there’s bills to pay and mouths to feed. But what if there was a way to pay those bills without selling your soul to a lousy job? What if we fed those mouths with the food we grow ourselves, in our own backyards, or with food we find, growing wild and ripe for the picking, just in our neighbourhoods?

I’ve been gardening since 2007, but this year was the first time I transitioned from hobby, part-time gardener to full-time urban homesteader. I’ve been reading a lot of books about (garden) season extension, permaculture, foraging, and transforming from a household of consumption to production. I now grow almost all my own vegetables, and, next spring, I hope to get some chickens and produce my own protein (eggs!). For food I can’t grow or source locally, I try, as often as I can, to source ethically. I barely go to the grocery store these days, except to buy dairy. We’ve even been thinking about growing grains to make beer and bread, but we’ll see how we do with the chickens first.

This is how I want to live my life: as simply, sustainably, resiliently, and cheaply as possible. I’ve paid off my debts and dug up the grass in my backyard to make room for a garden. I’ve stopped buying things and am getting rid of stuff. Living this way isn’t hard, but it takes time and energy. And the time and energy I spend to live simply, is, by far, the best, most rewarding time.

I really believe that anyone can live this way. Whether you live in the country or the city, there are ways to be more productive and less consumptive. When our society wants us to buy more, perhaps it’s better to buy less and make more.

‘Cause I’m a writer, I’m going to write about this. I want to show people it’s easy to live this way. We now live in a post-employment economy—while living simply is, right now, a choice, it may, very soon, become a necessity. Instead of panicking and thinking, what will I do? if you lose or quit your job, you can, instead, think, confidently, this is what I will do. I will live simply.

In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Free Folk (or, Wildlings) are the people who live north of the Wall. They differentiate themselves from “kneelers”—people beholden to a king they do not choose. The Free Folk kneel to no king, women fight alongside men in battle and are treated as equals, and they believe the earth and everything on it should be shared equally among all people. It’s what I like to refer to myself these days—as a free folk, someone who kneels to no one. Just, I’ll probably live with a few more amenities than Martin’s Free Folk, and hopefully there’s no ice zombie Others coming at us (unless you liken the Others to climate change, but, that’s a whole other post).

What’s all this have to do with cranberries? Well, those cranberries I picked? They're free, folks! And cranberries are loaded with vitamin C, which is pretty important to eat in the winter. Winter is coming, as the Starks like to remind us. Time to stock up on cranberries. I’m sure the road ahead, to a simpler, happier life, will be, well, unpredictable. I’ll need all the healthy snacks I can find.

New Photos Up

Got some new photos up on my Cape Breton page.

Here's another one, just because. Taken in the woods near my house.

Changes

I live in New Waterford, on Cape Breton Island. Besides the weather, things don’t change here very often. When I first moved here four years ago, my neighbours couldn’t believe I wasn’t related to anyone in town. Why would someone from away, who had no connection to anyone in town, choose to live in New Waterford? I had a feeling I was the first non-Cape Bretoner to move here since the mines were in full operation.

The last mine in New Waterford (or, NDub, as some of us call it) closed in 2001. There’s been lots of little changes since then (businesses coming and going, families moving out west to work, abandoned houses getting burned or torn down), but what about the big changes?

Let’s take this past year (2015) as an example. So far, New Waterford’s gotten:

  • two new pharmacies (well, we already had ‘em, but now they’re in two brand new buildings)
  • a library reno and facelift
  • a town clock (though I think that went in in 2014)
  • a new fish and chip restaurant (Batter the Devil You Know)

And, that’s about it! For changes, these are pretty much on the light side of change. We already had the pharmacies and library, I’m not even sure if the clock works, and, though the fish is fresh and local and the fries are hand-cut, it’s still a restaurant that features deep-fried food—which we already have plenty of in the area (not to knock Batter—it’s really tasty and it’s so damned nice to walk to a local restaurant and not have to drive into Sydney).

Then, a couple of weeks ago, we got a new prime minister. Not just New Waterford—all of Canada.

Who knows what Trudeau will be like as PM. There’s lots of speculating happening online, but I’m happy to withhold judgement and wait and see. We had almost 10 years of tyrannical Harper; I’m super pumped to keep optimistic. As of today (Nov. 4) we have our first Gen X PM. Hmm, maybe I should start a hastag (#genxpm). How wonderful that someone young is leading our country. If youth = change, then have at ‘er, Justin.

What’s this have to do with New Waterford? Where things seldom change and the population is rather...senior? There’s an expression: shit trickles downhill. Well, I think it’s an expression. And with Harper, boy, did the shit trickle downhill. His unemotional, corporation-first agenda did a hell of a number on Canada. I really feel his way of “leading” set a precedence for how a lot of people in positions of power decided to wield that power—unbending, unemotional, harassing, abusive. From politicians to administrators to small-business managers: for the last few years, Canadians have been living in a constant state of fear. Fear of speaking up. Fear of questioning authority. Fear of change. Which is bullshit. Ruling through fear-mongering is not leadership. It’s bullying and harassing.

Now we have a new PM. He’s young. He wants to change things. We wants people to co-operate. Maybe his attitude will trickle down and cover all the shit Harper left us with. And maybe that idea of change will trickle all the way down and over Cape Breton. Here’s hoping this is a new era of change and co-operation, of working together to change things.

Summer in Cape Breton

Realized I haven't updated the site since returning from the Yukon over 4 months ago! And now it's summer in Cape Breton--a bit cool and grey this week, which is great for the garden, but makes it tough to go to the beach. Although, I've already been to Ingonish twice this spring/summer. Hoping to hit the west side of the island this year--and finally make it to Mabou!

Photo at left is of Ingonish Beach back in May--when no one was on it but me.

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