My son’s partner, Myra, and I are in my car, ‘little red, driving along highway 102, bound for New Brunswick to visit her dad. Fred lives in Memramcook, a small village nearby the Bay of Fundy, spitting distance from Nova Scotia and a two-hour and twenty-two minute drive from Halifax, pretty much as the crow flies.
I’ve missed being on the road, even if the price of gas at $1.37 a litre is practically double the cost compared to last summer. I tell you, though, I’d pay triple that for the thrill of leaving Nova Scotia, minus the spectre of a diabolical 14-day isolation waiting for me when I return. I’d done four of those last year, and enough already.
Cary, my son and Myra’s partner, had been left behind to mind the house and Haggis, the cat. Cary also had to work, but besides that, after a year and a half living in very close quarters with the three of us, it was his turn for a little alone time.
The two are now my roomies, by the way, having arrived in Canada late 2019, after two years in Scotland. Their plan was to regroup with me for what was supposed to be six months. And then, you know, COVID, life changing events, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, and now they’re both back in school, reinventing themselves.
And that is why it’s 2021, and I’m still here, cycling through adult sons or nephew as roomies, except this time, a fiancée came with—Myra.
New Brunswick, I do confess, always seemed little more than a lonely stretch of highway on the way to Ontario,and I also admit to a grievous ignorance of the province. I didn’t know that it’s the only bilingual province in the country or of its history with the Acadians and First Nations. I had no idea it had endless beaches you could walk along for hours on end or of the Tidal Bore that snakes its way up the Petitcodiac River, every day, and that once, a group of surfers rode it for some 29 kilometres, from Belliveau Village to the Moncton Causeway. I’d never heard of the town of Dieppe, that nestles next to Moncton as Waterloo, my hometown, nestles next to Kitchener, or of Riverview, on the other side of the Petitcodiac, which is to Moncton and Dieppe as Cambridge is to Kitchener and Waterloo.
Memramcook splays across the Trois-Rivières region, and it’s hard to know where it begins or ends, if you’re not its people.Fred and his wife Sue live on a 25-acre rise of land, aside the Memramcook River, a tidal estuary that spills into the Petitcodiac.
When Myra and I arrive, the river is a shallow, mucky, red gash in an otherwise lush landscape, though hours later, it will swell into lusty curves when the brackish water surges upstream with the returning tide. Who the river is in the moment is entirely contingent on the Bay of Fundy, easily seen in the distance. The tides in that bay are powerful, with the greatest ranges found anywhere on earth. The water funnels in and out of the bay in a 12-hour cycle, in rhythm with the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon.
Atop the hill is Fred and Sue’s homestead, an old, clapboard one and a half story, flanked on three sides by a profusion of gardens, with ribbons of purple lavender and pink poppies and lilies of all shades, a quilted boundary of colour and scent. The blossoms thrum with the buzz of bees, so many it seems impossible to dip down and sniff the lavender. These bees are not far from their own homestead. They live over yonder, in three bee boxes Fred has nestled amongst a mixed stand of hardwoods and softwoods.
“Dad,” Myra calls out as she walks into the house. There’s no answer, and he’s nowhere to be seen. Neither is Sue being she’s away in Ontario, visiting her daughter and grandchildren for the first time since the pandemic.
But then, we see Fred ambling down the path on a hill between his and his backyard neighbour’s house.
“Hello!” he calls out to us. “Just been checking on the chickens, and then Alain came home, and we had a beer.”
Myra’s face cracks in two with a smile, bright as a moonbeam.
We stand on the footbridge between Moncton and Dieppe, aside the Petitcodiac River, awaiting the tidal bore’s arrival, when the water’s flows switches upstream, rather than downstream. For now, the river is flat and a lone surfer sits on a board, trailing his hands in the peaceful waters.
We hear it before we see it—just as Fred said would happen—the sound of rushing water preceding a lone wave front that’s suddenly barreling around a bend in the river, stretching itself from bank to bank. The surfer frantically paddles his board to the river’s middle, and as the wave gets closer, he stands on his board and catches it, riding the ruddy surge, and we watch until he and the wave are too far away to follow.
On the way home, Fred takes Myra and me on the scenic route, alongside the river.
“I might have to make a quick stop,” he announces, and no sooner the words are out of his mouth than he takes a right, onto a gravel drive. Beside the lane, two wooden Muskoka chairs and a table sit on the grass, with a ‘For Sale’ sign.
“Sue and I have been wanting a couple of these to set on the hill. We saw them a couple years ago, and we’ve been waiting to see them again. They fold up,” he explains, turning off the car. I hop out to see exactly how these Muskoka chairs can possibly fold and discover, indeed, they do.
A salty-looking man strides out of the house, ruffling his hand through a thick hedge of grayed hair, and in minutes, Fred’s arranged to buy the chairs and come back to pick them at 6 o’clock. Then we’re on the road again, though hardly minutes later, the blinker’s on. Fred turns into another drive, where his backyard neighbour Alain stands with his partner, Ashley, on the front lawn of her home.
“May as well stop… faster to stop than call. Just need to have chat about the bees,” he explains, and lickety split, he’s out of the car, yelling out his ‘Hello’and chatting up Ashley on the bee box he will keep for her on his property.
While they work out the logistics, Alain opens the chicken coop, lets the birds out of the coop. Minutes later, we’re surrounded by flying feathers and hens squawking and roosters crowing and blue sky and shining sun, and that lovely feeling descends, the one where you’ve no control whatsoever over what’s happening, but as it turns out, it’s all heaven.
Back at the house, we’re home hardly minutes before Fred’s phone rings.
“Great. We’ll be right over, but I have to leave before six to go pick up some chairs,” Fred clicks off his phone, and then turns to Myra and me to share his news, “We can head over for a tour of the Earthship now.”
The Earthship was in a work-in-progress for three and a half years. It’s an off-grid environmental lair built with dirt-filled tires and recycled materials. It’s hardly noticeable from the road, being in direct competition with the far off view of the Bay of Fundy. But what does manage to rivet the eye is the gigantic garden alongside the home, which is surrounded by a wondrous, ten feet high fence, built of boughs and limbs collected from the land. The branches arc gracefully into each other, intertwining into a complex, airy weave that brings to mind straw hats, hand-woven baskets and the chaotic beauty of beaver dams.
Fred and Sue had helped out with the build, Fred volunteering himself and his tractor to bulldoze dirt to the tires as the structure grew higher, Sue taking photos and food in neighbourly way. The home’s south-facing wall is full glass, and the floors inside are slate, except along the front where the floor is left open to the earth in spots, for growing things. In dirt-filled beds, tomato plants rise upward, practically a story and a half high, and the hefty stalks are as thick as my wrists. The plants are laden with clusters of tomatoes, hanging heavy and lavish and just on the brink of turning red.
James and Monique take us through their house, explaining its construction, by their own hands—how they’d laid the floor slab by slab, cut the glass bottles and attached them together to embed in the walls as peek-a-boo portals between rooms, and how they’d smoothed concrete onto the walls, their hands molding a finish that hides the functional framework.
Gob-smacked, I explore every room, quizzing and questioning them as we go. Envy and fascination overwhelm me, and I somehow manage to solicit an invitation to stay in their spare room, someday, and try out the home from the inside out.
Outside, they explain the fundamentals of cisterns and show me how the eaves on the steel roof empty into one of three of these cisterns, alleviating the need for a well. Solar panels atop the roof provide all the energy necessary to power whatever needs powering, and they point to the spot where they plan to construct a detached fruit cellar in the fall. The tires for the construction and a mound of dirt sit in wait, and that is when they throw me a bone—mentioning they plan on inviting others to come and help with the build whilst they learn about such construction.
The entire undertaking—Earthship, garden, inexplicable fence—is simultaneously architectural eye candy and a feat of impossibility, and I ponder how someone could conceive of such a wonder, let alone bring it to be.
Maybe, in the fall, if I’m lucky, I might lend my hands in this dream, helping them out with the fruit cellar.
I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed.
* * *
In the evening, when Fred returns from the chair pick up, we head to the garden to dig out some potatoes for dinner. Myra tosses the red and white tubers from field straight into a pot filled with a bubbling boil of salted water. When the knife slides in with ease, we pile potatoes onto our plates, squish them with forks, and slather the creamy flesh with butter and salt. And I do swear, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a real potato before this.
Kitchen tidied and dishes done, the cribbage board comes out, and soon, it becomes clear who has and who has not grown up playing the game. Chatter is lazy and meandering, and Fred talks about Nature Moncton, a non-profit he belongs to. They have weekly blog, based on sightings of birds, animals and nature in general. He carefully explains how these sightings are phoned into their Information Line, and that each week one of the members listens to all the messages, types them out, and then shares everything on their blog.
The group has also built and given away hundreds of wooden birdhouses, providing birds options as they lose more and more of their forest homes. Fred happens to be non-partisan, offering bees and hummingbirds homes as well. And he seems not to hold it against other, unwanted critters when they make their home in his. But then, again, he’s got a cat for that, Pixie, “a dangerous killer,” he says, while Myra nods her head in vigorous agreement.
Watching their easy camaraderie, how their words spill out, the similarity of thought, I understand this is the way, I think, to best know the woman who will be your son’s wife, watching her relax into the easy, gentle rhythms of father and daughter.
Sleep comes to call faster and easier than in the city with its nighttime chorus of wailing sirens, honks of firetruck horns, rumbles of idling oil truck engines, and the whoops and hollers of the young, trailing home from the bars, now that the world is open again. Soothed by the absolute absence of man-made noises, I give in to the yawns, say goodnight, and leave Myra and Fred at the kitchen table, crib board between them. Off to my bunkie I go, a two room structure, separate from the house, with its own little porch and a hummingbird feeder at its window.
Outside, the moon hangs low on the horizon, a giant, ginger saucer no camera aperture could properly capture, though I pull out my phone and give it a try, nonetheless.
At dawn, a rooster’s crow awakens me, and after I rise, I take to the paths Fred has shorn through the acreage. The heavy dew douses my sneakers as I walk past garden, pond, firepit, and down the hill into a forest strewn with a cushion of needles, softening every footfall. It’s a fairy land, with strange objects—teapots, dinosaur figurines, purses, and old dolls—tucked in trees here and there, waiting upon young eyes to spy and claim them magic.
The path runs parallel to a grassy marsh that descends downwards, ending at the red, clay banks of the river, where low tide has left the water a shallow crimson dribble down its centre seam.
Back up the path I tramp, through grass and bracken, alongside swamp and bulrushes and squishy forest detritus, where beneath woodland bows, something shimmers. White, translucent stalks of Ghost Pipe burst through the peaty layers, and there it is, the spirit of summer woods.
It’s ubiquitous this year, underfoot at Long Lake, St. Margaret’s Bay, and most every trail I’d traversed these summer months. I’d learned the plant has no use for chlorophyll and, thus, needs not photosynthesis nor leaves. It grows in the deepest and darkest of forests, thrusting through mats of decaying leaves, alongside the mushrooms and fungi. You can eat it raw, and it tastes of asparagus, or so they say, though I’ve not yet dared to try it. When mature, each stalk bows over with but one, single flower that beckons to the bees. After pollination, it stands up tall and dries out, colouring itself in creams and browns that complement the forest floor.
* * *
Off the main room of Fred and Sue’s, there is a covered porch where Myra sets up herself up to work for the day. As she tip-taps on her keyboard, solving problematic websites issues and resolving tickets, I collapse on the other lounge. It’s one of those meant for damsel-in-distress swoons, lazy accidental naps and thousand miles stares. I feign as if to work, and immediately slide into stare mode, looking over at Fred’s newly built shed. The structure has a sloped roof and holds the various paraphernalia of tools and gadgetry necessary to prune and nurture 25 acres worth of dreaming. He’d christened it 60 degreesin homage to the fact that he’d built it by turning that one, single angle this way and that. It’s bright and airy inside, with translucent corrugated roofing panels that lets light pour inside.
Fred hales from River Hibert, Nova Scotia, hardly a hop, skip and a jump from Memramcook. Growing up, he’d absorbed the East Coast doctrine, common knowledge to all from these parts—move away to make a living (because you must), keep your dream alive and well fed (let nothing and no one get in its way) and come home as soon as you can (to give birth to your dream)—and right here, smack dab in the middle of rural New Brunswick is the proof that, if followed, the edict will bear fruit, or in Fred’s case, gardens and bees and hummingbirds, by the dozens.
When it’s time for us to head home to Halifax, Fred fills a brown paper bag with freshly dug potatoes and tops it up with a few garlic scapes. I see jars of honey in the near future, along with visions of a year from now, when Myra and Cary will marry on these 25 acres, their dream.
This month begins my seventh year as a runaway. Of all the dreams I’ve stepped into since leaving home, never did I ever dream I’d still be here.
Whatever the reasons ratcheting my ‘one-year away’ to seven, there’s something about the number that sobers even the most flippant of souls. Seven is a statement, well past the hump and on the way to a decade. And seven years should probably equate, at least, to an inkling of permanence, but it doesn’t. I remain a runaway, and a runaway, you see, is just always waiting for winds of change to bring with them the next where toand when to go.
Until the winds come for me, I’ll be here to bear witness to these and other’s dreams, in varying stages of beginnings, middles and even, sometimes, ends. And really, was there any other way to properly learn dreams are built on the faith that putting one foot in front of the other, is what will get you there, without leaving all I’d known behind?
I don’t think so, or at least, not for me.
Dodging the bees, I snip two bunches of lavender from Fred and Sue’s garden. One, I immediately tie to my rearview mirror, and the other, I plan to hang somewhere in my bedroom, back on Duncan Street.
With more than enough hours of daylight left for the drive back to Halifax, Myra and her dad hug, and we climb into the car, wave goodbye to Fred, and hit the road.
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