March is the coldest month and April is plenty cruel, but in Atlantic Canada May is the cruelest month, mixing hopefulness and frogsong with coyote scat and cold fogs, driving rains, muddy paths, and sometimes frosts. Woe unto you if encouraged by a single warm weekend, you’ve already planted a vegetable garden in the open air. Cold comfort, perhaps, to hear that we’ve all made this mistake, waking one morning late in the month to find the cucumber vines shriveled and the tomato plants dead.
We keep a constant fire going in the hearth, and measure new growth, not in inches but millimeters.
Still, such extreme climactic moderation has its pleasures, among them time to glory in the greening of each small thing, in a month of peeper song, in violets in the grass. The daffodils last for several weeks at least, and every apple blossom and wild iris is long awaited. Rhubarb tastes better when you savour the first pie, expectantly, for nearly a month.
Each day brings its novelty: the eiders in their mating colours; a pair or two of nesting geese on a nearby island; porcupines trailing through the trees nibbling new grass (quick! call back the dog!); the first duet between loons out in the islands and coyotes up in the barrens; the return of the swallows, looping and darting after insects, and just in time to consume their weight in black flies; the screeching of the willets, or the silent and awkward majesty of great blue herons abandoning a rocky perch; the who-who-who hooting behind the house of the resident Great Horned Owl at night; the screeling of the gulls as they chase returning lobster boats, waiting for them to dump their bait; the shadow of an osprey passing overhead, trailing branches for its nest.
Here’s what I’m waiting for now: the spruce tips to grow out just a bit more so that we can harvest them, peel back their papery brown wrappers and test out poet Susan Musgrave’s Spruce Tip Syrup and Spruce Tip Vodka Recipes (sugar, water and spruce tips with a sprinkling of salt or spruce tips and vodka). I’ve been collecting other recipes as well–spruce shortbread anyone? Already, on sunny days in warm dells, we catch whiffs of spruce pollen–at a distance it has the smell of a marvelous outdoor bakery, of dozens of raspberry pies.
Yesterday was my first kayak of the season (we went out wearing warm hats and many layers and insulated neoprene gloves). Seals were barking out on the rocks, the tide slurped up under rocky walls, and the air was pure and clean and blue: the smell of saltwater and faraway and abiding, albeit tentative, hope.
Susan Musgrave’s spruce tip recipes are found in her wonderfully entertaining cookbook, A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World (Whitecap 2015).
Laurie Constantino also offers good instructions and fine recipes for spruce tip gatherers on her blog, Recipes and Resources for Food Lovers: http://www.laurieconstantino.com/how-to-harvest-spruce-tips-with-recipes-for-using-spruce-tips-or-pine-tips-or-fir-tips/
You can listen to various owl calls, including the Great Horned Owl’s hooting on Nature Canada’s website here: http://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/whos-there-identifying-owl-calls/
For more information on paddling the Eastern Shore, the true experts are Scott Cunningham and Gayle Wilson at Coastal Adventures. See their website here: http://www.coastaladventures.com/daytours.html and for specific information on the Eastern Shore, here: http://www.coastaladventures.com/easternshore.html
Photos are of daffodils in the grass; clematis climbing the garage; phlox, strawberries and moss escaping garden confines; rhubarb leafing out; spider web and maritime sunburst lichen (Xanthoria parietina) on greywacke inukshuk; raindrop in a lupin leaf; peony shoots; Marike and Enya the fog on a Quoddy cobble beach. All are recent images from my Instagram feed: (@karinmariecope).