Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Conversation With...Louise Haycocks and Kirsteen Thomson

First published in the April 11 issue of The Oxford Journal by Sara Mattinson.

“Um, why does this cow have Christmas lights strung around its head?” I ask. 
Louise Haycocks strides to the other side of the pine tree where I’m standing next to the cow shed. 
“What? Oh!” she exclaims. “He’s out of the pen. Sir Loin!”
Five minutes later, with the help of two dwarf goats, one small dog and a three-legged cat, Louise has Sir Loin, a large bull calf, back in the pen with his mother, an Irish Dexter cow named Buttercup. Louise and her partner, Kirsteen Thompson, live outside of Pugwash on Round House Eco Farm (so named because their house is octagonal). Their building plan was inspired by a 16-sided house in Devon, England, where they used to live. 
“What brought you to Canada?” I ask.
“An aeroplane,” Louise replies (so I write the word as it sounds with her British accent). 
“I’ll be the sensible one,” states Kirsteen, who was born and raised in Canada; she met Louise in Nigeria where they were both volunteering with Cuso International, a non-profit development organization. Kirsteen joined Louise back in England.  
“We lived in the countryside,” Kirsteen explains, “but the countryside there is very different; it’s quite crowded.”
So they landed in Quebec and bought a camping trailer to begin looking for land in northern New Brunswick. Their search ended, finally, in October just outside of Westchester, where they found a little cabin for sale and spent their first winter making plans. 
“It was the end of the line,” Louise quips and Kirsteen adds, “We wanted to live by the sea, for some obscure reason.” (They had cycled together through Nova Scotia 10 years earlier and Louise had been quite taken by the name ‘Pugwash’.)
It was the apple trees that attracted them to the nine-acre property on Miller Road.
“When you’re looking for land, you have to find something that speaks to you, that you like,” Kirsteen says.
“It has to speak to both of you,” Louise interjects.
They now own 20 acres because along with the cows and goats, they keep three horses and a pony, a pig which produces piglets every spring, and a large flock of chickens that includes a peacock. Like most modern farmers, in order to support the farm, Louise and Kirsteen have off-farm jobs (in adult education and educational technology).
“It’s not a hobby farm because we do have some income,” Kirsteen explains, “but it’s how we like to spend our money. Partly we do it because we want to eat food that we know where it came from. That’s how we started. Pigs and chickens are raised in such terrible conditions that we won’t eat them. We raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, eggs, of course, plus one calf a year which is our beef.” 
Hence the aptly named Sir Loin who was decorating himself with lights from a small tree in the middle of their circular driveway as this interview was taking place. 
They don’t do their own butchering; they are quite pleased with a local butcher who takes care of their provincially-inspected pork, which is the product they sell. 
“We don’t have a problem with killing the animals,” says Louise, “it’s just that the butchers know what they are doing. I can’t imagine where we’d start! It’s not about us doing everything ourselves. It’s never been about that. It’s about knowing what we were eating. It’s about the food. And what we’ve discovered along the way is how much better the food tastes. But in the beginning, it was about the industrialization of animals.”
Do they get attached to their animals? 
“Well, not to the chickens,” Louise and Kirsteen answer at the same time.
“We had a wonderful boar but we had to butcher him because he was getting too big to breed younger sows,” says Kirsteen. “He was a wonderful pig. You’d scratch his belly and he’d roll over. He was the sweetest, most gentle boar you could imagine but he was too big. You can’t keep pigs as pets.”
“It’s not as difficult as you might think,” Louise says. “It becomes the only decision that is sensible. When we started, we realized how easy it is to become a collector of animals so we said that what we would try and do is for everything to have a use. Like the peacock,” she adds wryly. 
“He’s alright,” says Kirsteen in Pointless Percy’s defence, who came to Round House Eco Farm a year ago as a rescue. 
It’s not just their own meat they enjoy. Thanks to their gardens, they freeze vegetables to eat throughout the winter. 
“We spend very little at the grocery store,” Louise admits. 
Less than $100 a month.
“But I put store-bought cream into my coffee,” I point out.
“Only because the cow went dry earlier than we expected this year,” Louise answers and I’m disappointed to miss out on the opportunity to taste Buttercup’s other contribution to the couple’s self-described obsession with good food.
For that is what Kirsteen identifies as the most satisfying part of this life: the food. 
“We made our own bacon the other day, we smoked our own bacon, and it was so good. When you have a meal and everything is from your own land, it’s wonderful.”

Photo: Louise and Kirsteen check on Priscilla and her two-day old piglets (there are 8 of them). 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Stop the presses!

Well, it's not that dramatic (although we did have a moment like that a couple of weeks ago with our diligent co-op student, Emily) but we are a bigger paper this week. We've had to go to 28 pages in order to fit in all the colour ads that are scheduled. That's great for a weekly community newspaper. Shows we are still alive and kicking hard despite the conglomerates trying to eat us for lunch AND dinner.
Community newspapers matter. This week's issue is proof.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rain, Rain, Come Our Way

Here that gasping, those gulping sounds?
That's the sound of our dry Earth soaking up the rain.

We are precipitation-challenged this year. In March, we received half of our normal amount of precipitation, and April is on track for the same kind of numbers. The tulips planted in the large boxes in front of the chicken coop aren't coming on very well; too parched. If they don't bloom, I'll miss seeing that splash of colour. I've been worried about the spring peeper tadpoles, too; they need water in order to grow or there won't be any peepers next spring.
How would we know it was spring if the spring peepers don't call?
Yet, as I recall, it rained non-stop for ten days in early May last year so with Maritime weather, it's always "Be careful what you wish for!"

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Winning Neighbour

The East Coast Music Awards were held last weekend in Moncton, NB, and two of our neighbours were nominated. 
Dale Murray, along with his partner in life and music, moved into our neighbourhood over a year ago, choosing to settle in the country in order to continuing pursuing their work. Dale is a singer/songwriter, formerly with The Guthries and Cuff the Duke but now a solo artist (he released his latest album, Dream Mountain Dream, in March) as well as a music producer. Christina Martin is a singer/songerwriter who new album gets released this summer. She was nominated for Folk Recording of the Year for her last album, House Concert, recorded at their new home studio in Port Howe about six months after they moved in.
It was Dale, however, who brought home the hardware. He is the ECMA Audio Professional of the Year for his work in music production.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April. 4, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

During a recent conversation, I mentioned my chickens and the woman I was talking to exclaimed, “You have chickens?!” the same way I would say, “You won a million dollars?!” Yet I understand her excitement because for some of us, chickens represent a certain kind of achievement. 
Back in the summer of 2006, when I was spending a few weeks alone at the summer house my parents used to own on Pugwash Point, I opened up a book of writing exercises by author Julia Cameron. In her introduction to the second exercise, Cameron wrote, “Each of us has a different idea of sophistication. Each of us has certain items that speak to us as tokens of success....List twenty-five things that represent to you sophistication and success.”
By the time I’d reached number 12 on my list, I realized I had it all wrong. I drew a line through tuxedo and champagne and a trip to Italy then wrote, “A chicken coop in the back yard.” To me, keeping chickens would mean I’d reached a level of success that allowed me to have a home in the country. A few weeks later, I started dating a local boy and the first time I saw his rural acreage, I said, “What a great place for a chicken coop.” 
When he replied, “I would love to have chickens,” I knew we would have beautiful eggs together.
Some scientists believe the domestic chicken dates as far back as 10,000 years. There are 19 billion domestic chickens in the world. A free-range hen can lay 160 eggs in her first year of laying. The expression “raising your hackles” refers to the long, flowing hackle feathers on the back of a rooster’s neck which he raises in order to make himself look larger. The fear of chickens is called “alektoraphobia”.   
It was fear of the big feet and swishing tails of horses and cows that made me fulfill an adult-onset hankering for livestock with chickens. For a city-raised girl, seven-pound hens were the perfect way to introduce me to animal husbandry. A year after we married in 2007, we built a chicken coop, painted it yellow, and filled it with a dozen chickens which is a nice size for a back yard flock. Today, the only remaining member of that original flock is our large but good-natured rooster who turns four this spring. 
 “How much do you think that rooster of yours would dress?” my father-in-law asked me. 
I pinned a beady chicken eye on the former farmer and replied, “I hope you mean dressing him up in a tuxedo because that’s the only way he’s coming to dinner.”  
Wouldn’t that be sophisticated? 
The woman who was excited to learn I keep chickens recently moved here from Halifax and I’m sure if she saw me walking across the yard in my rubber boots to collect warm, brown eggs from under the dozen hens who live in our yellow chicken coop, she would be envious of my sophistication and success. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Winning Neighbour!

Check out this week's issue of The Oxford Journal for an interview with singer/songwriter and producer Dale Murray, of Port Howe, fresh off his win at this weekend's East Coast Music Awards in Moncton.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In Conversation With..Christina Martin

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 28, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

The screen door of the green farmhouse on Carrington Road in Port Howe is open, letting bright March sunshine splash onto the floor inside. As I raise my hand to knock, I don’t hear the sound of drums or a guitar; I hear unmelodious clattering.
“Come in,” Christina Martin says with a smile. “I’m making coffee. Would you like some?”
Christina opens the doors of her china cabinet.
“Choose your cup and saucer,” she commands. “These belonged to my grandmother.”
The dining room window reveals a sweeping vista across fields and woods to the Northumberland Strait. Sitting down at her narrow antique table with two cups of fine-bone china between us, Christina laughs when I tell her, “People want to know who’s living in the green house?”
“That’s a great title!” she exclaims. 
Perhaps she’ll be inspired to write a song for a future album. Which answers part of the question: Christina, 32, is an award-winning singer/songwriter (her second album, Two Hearts, won an East Coast Music Award for Best Pop Recording in 2009) who grew up in New Brunswick. The other ‘who’ in the green house is Dale Murray, 37, a singer/songwriter in his own right but also Christina’s husband and music producer. Dale’s grandmother had a cottage at Northport. 
“Dale and I had been seeing each other, I’d been living in Halifax for about seven years, and we wanted to move outside the city, to the country,” she explains. “We didn’t know where, but we play a lot of rural areas. I’ve always loved playing in rural, small, intimate, lovely areas. I’m drawn to those areas.”
Dale’s mother found them a place to rent near Wallace but it soon became clear that if they wanted to bring their plan of working in the country to fruition, they needed room for a studio. 
“Someone was talking about this old farmhouse and I said, ‘Can we just go see it?’ There were a few big selling points,” Christina says of the large three-bedroom house they moved into in January 2011. “It was in great shape and it was perfect for what we needed and what we wanted. This whole place just screamed ‘We can work, create and be at peace here’ and I need that. I never dreamed we’d be here this soon in our lives,” she says as she fills her grandmother’s cups with a second serving of coffee. “As a musican, you have in your mind the idea that you’re never going to own a house. I think that’s one of the biggest things to overcome, the mental patterns that we develop, convincing ourselves we can’t do this or that.”
Spoken like a would-be psychologist. Although she’d dabbled in singing and song writing since she was a child, Christina earned a degree in psychology and business. She quickly realized music was her true calling but as a songwriter who mines her own life for inspiration and manages her own career, don’t think that education is wasted.
“I’m lucky I have certain business skills and conscientiousness for that kind of stuff. I’m organized and I love planning. But there are things that I don’t do because I have to focus on writing. I could do business 100 percent of the time but what kind of art would I be producing?”
Through the window, I see a garden plot lying in winter disarray. “Are you handy?” 
“We’re learning to be handier,” she answers. “I like to do things and if I had more time and money, I would be handier. I don’t think Dale would be offended if I said he is not handy.”
Behind us, from what was likely the original dining room but is now Dale’s studio, we hear an emphatic “No.”
 This musical duo is quite happy to hire local help as they need it. Being self-sufficient is not their goal; nor is the remoteness of their home and studio an issue.
“We knew we wanted to live outside the city and it wasn’t a false desire,” says Christina. “We settled right in. When we go out and tour - for about a year and a half after a new album, you’re out on the road quite a bit - my social time is that. That’s when I meet people. But I really value my time alone. I need that to be creative and to organize and do my work.”
Although she’s lived in big places like Halifax, Austin, Texas (where she recorded her first album), and Germany most of her adult life, Christina isn’t lamenting the loss of the advantages that come with living in the city. 
“There are more performance and promotion opportunities in a city but not necessarily a financial benefit. We were lucky that we were at a point in our musical careers where we could come out here and still afford to buy a house. Even though we have to drive two hours to Halifax or Moncton or wherever the gig is, it’s still more affordable for us to be living and working here.”
They wasted no time making the most of their new way of life. Christina’s last album, an acoustic compilation called A House Concert, was recorded and produced by Dale in the green house, with a live audience, seven months after they moved in. 
“Our whole focus in this green house is music,” says Christina, already co-opting my description. “I think it’s even more of a motivation to keep going in what we’re doing so that we don’t ever have to live somewhere because we have to.”
Considering that just yesterday, Dale released his first new album in seven years and Christina’s next album will be released this summer, it appears Grandma’s china will be used quite a bit. 
“We’re very lucky,” says the co-owner of the green house on Carrington Road. “I hope it continues that we can live where we want to live and work where we want to live.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

No More Empty Nest

Once the first of April arrives, our eyes slip to the osprey nest at the edge of our property every time we walk outside. We can't help it; from their arrival to several days after they leave in mid-September, this is our habit. This pair of osprey has come to define our springs and summers and we await their return every spring.
In 2010, one returned on April 20 and its mate followed a week later.
Last year, one returned on April 13 and its mate followed a week later.
Today, April 10, both osprey arrived to the nest.
Our osprey are home!

Monday, April 09, 2012

In This Week's Issue

My conversation this week is with a couple who run a small-scale farm -- four horses, two cows, two goats, a flock of hens, one peacock, two dogs, several cats...and one pig.
One very lovely, very large, very motherly pig.

No wonder I enjoy this part of my job: Everyone has such an interesting story, even Priscilla here. She was an "industrial" pig;  Louise and Kirsteen bought her when the pig farm she lived on closed down and now she is fulfilling her life's purpose as a sow producing piglets every spring. Those pigs are all sold to families to be butchered for meat but they are raised humanely; each one has a name as well (this year, it will be B names).
That's what my conversation is about this week: why knowing where their meat comes from matters to this couple.
Check it out in this Wednesday's issue of The Oxford Journal.

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Bird In The Hand

Sometimes the sound of a bird hitting the window is an unexpected opportunity to spend time with the folks we feed all winter.  This little feathered friend took a long time to fly away, as if he was rather content to sit on our deck table alongside my husband in the early spring sunshine.
Obviously, he trusted us to keep the cat inside.

One of his buddies finally flew over as if to check on him and shortly after, our friend disappeared.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Your Words Are My Words

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 by Sara Mattinson

Among my responsibilities at this newspaper are the Classifieds. Every week, I compile the In Memoriam announcements and the Cards of Thanks, but it wasn’t until my father’s 70th birthday was days away that I truly appreciated this part of my work. 
Growing up in urban Ontario, I wasn’t aware of the lives and deaths of the people in the community; we didn’t live in a rural area where close connections to neighbours are long-standing, daily, and necessary. My world was the church we attended and the street on which we lived, which happened to be in the same neighbourhood, rather than half a county. The practice of publishing, and reading, memorial and thank you announcements in the newspaper was foreign to me until I began  working at this newspaper ten months ago.
In the world I grew up in, it was the obituaries that mattered: My father was a funeral director and we lived above the business. When the phone rang and someone said, “Did you hear that so-and-so died?” it meant we’d have to be quiet upstairs during the evening of visitation. Likely my father would know the family. 
These days, when the phone rings and someone says, “Did you hear that so-and-so died?” it means a Card of Thanks and perhaps, a year later, an In Memoriam announcement will cross my desk. I’m also likely to recognize the name or at least, make a family connection. 
Twenty years after   away from home, I’m now working in a job that shares common ground with my father’s profession. He treated funeral service with great dignity and respect, and demanded the same from his staff and family. He was known as a kind and thoughtful man who guided many people through a few difficult days. 
Each week, many of the announcements I receive are handwritten, connecting me closely with the person who took the time to sit down and think about and write the perfect words for the family member they want to remember. From now on, instead of transcribing my pile of insertion orders quickly, another task completed on a day full of deadlines, I’m going to treat each Card of Thanks and In Memoriam with the same dignity and respect to the printed word that my father gave to each human being. Those handwritten words become my words. 
My father died in the spring of 2009 and as his 70th birthday approached earlier this month, I considered submitting a memorial announcement to our hometown paper. Having never done something like that before, I kept putting it off because I couldn’t figure out what to say. It wasn’t until I was writing up an In Memoriam announcement for this paper that I found the perfect words for my own father. Suddenly, I very much wanted to go public with my need for him to be remembered. 
But I had missed the other paper’s deadline. 
The fierceness of my disappointment surprised me. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

Ticked Off

My friend Jane says she found a tick on her ten-month-old dog, Sam, over the weekend. It was under his collar, a good place to hide.
Jane and Sam, along with me and my two dogs, went for a long walk into our back woods last week. Watching 9-year-old Stella doing her usual ignoring-my-owner-doing-my-own-thing with the two pups close at her heels, we were amused. It was like watching King Kong in charge of a primary class.
But now we have to worry about those three running through the woods. We have lots of deer behind our house, and so the black-legged tick (formerly known as the deer tick) will be in abundance now, thanks to our increasingly mild winters.
Only twice in the past five years have I found a tick on Stella. I don't usually check her; I find them by accident, easier on a short-haired dog. But now we'll have to have regular checks...of me, too. Boy, oh, boy, you don't want to be around the day my husband finds a tick on me. I don't mind bugs, as long as I can see them and they aren't on me.
It's one thing to pull a tick off Stella, but I certainly won't be so docile or quiet.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Teaching The New Dog A New Trick

When I moved to rural Nova Scotia in 2007, my dog Stella was four years old. She'd never driven on a four-wheeler before and it wasn't something she was the least bit interested in. She would sit in the seat but as soon as my husband started moving forward, she'd jump off. I always dreaded the broken leg so we gave up. At 60 pounds, she was too heavy to ride on my lap with my arms holding her tight.
One afternoon two autumns ago, I happened to look back as we headed up the unimproved road that goes up alongside our land and there was Stella, running, trying to keep up. Poor thing, she was too old and unconditioned for that kind of hard endurance running. Big dog, big heart.
With this new puppy, who is now six months old, we want to get her comfortable with riding on the bike as soon as possible. She can ride on my lap now that she is small but she's growing fast and soon, it just won't be comfortable.

It's fun to take her, to have a dog part of our woodland excursions, so perhaps I'll go out more on the bike by myself if Abby can ride along with me. So for these early days of spring, we're getting her used to the bike with short rides around the yard. Soon, she'll be helping "Papa" lug chicken poop and dirty shavings to the compost pile at the top of the field.
A real country canine companion.