Pot Luck March 2016

Barn swallows and the Zika virus
    The same week our provincial daily published a story about Brazil stepping up measures to control the Zika virus carried by a species of mosquito and suspected of causing a birth defect resulting in babies with small heads (microcephaly), it carried another about the disappearance of Barn swallows.
    Swallows and other birds that sweep insects (including lots of mosquitoes) from the air while in flight are in serious decline. We are encouraged to do what we can to provide Barn swallows nesting sites, and many do. But is the population of swallows dwindling because there are not as many old barns around as once was the case – as some believe – or is it mosquito abatement programs in Latin America where our birds spend their winters? Already, in the panic over a suspected link between Zika and microcephaly, pressure builds to release more genetically modified male mosquitoes in more countries to breed with Zika-bearing females and cause them to lay eggs that die, and there are calls to unleash DDT.  

Fat voles
    No sooner had I responded to a question in our letters column this issue from Bruce Blakemore about a plague of voles in the Blakemore/Jones potato patch in Purgatory Point than the dog went a little nuts here in the house, running about nosing into every corner of the kitchen. One corner was of particular interest, being the one where I had set a trap for wayward Deer mice. I’d not heard the snap of the trap, as Hank the Tank apparently had – not on a Deer mouse in this case but on a Red-backed vole. A fat vole. I must investigate the condition of my potatoes stored in the cellar.
    Wildlife is more obvious this time of the year not only because mice are about but because there is some snow – thankfully nothing like the accumulations this time last year – and every passing mammal leaves its tracks behind. A large coyote coming up from the beach left paw prints larger than those of 80-pound Hank the Tank, my shaggy mutt. Porcupines shuffle from beneath the barn to the nearest apple tree, bent on winter pruning. Snowshoe hares are abundant this year, which bodes well for bobcats and other predators, like the mink whose tracks followed one hare up the driveway. Seeing these other tracks intercepting those of the snowshoe I guessed mink but was not sure who’d left them. My copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s classic tracks and scats guide, “Animal Tracks and Hunter Signs,” settled the matter right away. “Mink” in the index guides the reader to one of Seton’s excellent line drawings, a full-page illustration titled, “Mink on the Rabbit Trail,” accompanied by a spell-binding narrative (No one tells stories anymore, notice? It’s all about narratives) explaining the whys and wherefores of two converging sets of tracks in the snow – just as was seen in the driveway.

Food security
    Infantile Romaine lettuce under a row cover in the unheated greenhouse has withstood the cold, up to now. With luck the deep freeze this weekend will not put an end to this experiment to see if I can begin harvesting early in April, if not a little before. If I can, I will have been a very few weeks without fresh lettuce, having been taught that Romaine can be kept fresh for weeks if wrapped in damp paper towel and placed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
    Time to start tomatoes that this year I thought I would plant in a container in the bottom of the bathtub, under a grow light once the sprouts emerge. The bathroom’s radiator heated with water from the outside furnace will keep just the right temperature in that small room. 
    I would steer clear of some old varieties of tomatoes grown last year that met with just about no one’s satisfaction. But what were they? Keeping records of what’s planted (and when) from year to year is important so as not to repeat mistakes. I’m one for diligently starting out the growing season keeping careful records that are invariably lost as the season progresses.
    Better to have listed and lost than to not have listed at all? Not really.  

    Between exorbitantly high prices on the one hand and lack of selection on the other, the fresh produce sections of our local grocery stores have been looking unattractive of late – “bombed out,” was one friend’s description of shelves intended to be piled high with bright green broccoli, sleek leeks, and the like. Beef prices are said to be terribly high as well, all of which reinforces the argument that food security begins at home, in the well-stocked pantry, cold cellar, and deep freeze. What a pleasure it is to plan menus around home-grown or purchased-in-season fruits, meats, and vegetables at this time of the year rather than be flailing helplessly about at the end of a costly, disappointing, retail food chain.  
    Get out those seed catalogs and plant, this year, even if only a couple of buckets on the back porch. It all adds up. Back years ago a friend’s grandmother who’d grown up in Italy planted a garden not much larger than a ping-pong table in the tiny backyard of their home in an urban neighborhood. She planted everything tightly together as is today espoused by Jean-Martin Fortier, the subject of stories in this magazine and author of “The Market Gardener.” There was little to no room for weeds in granny’s garden. Just space enough for lots and lots of vegetables.

A vote for dark skies
    “Let there be light,” but not everywhere all the time. Light pollution is becoming a huge but creeping intrusion, and just for that reason – the way it creeps little by little into our lives and private spaces. It is not getting the negative attention it deserves. In another generation or two, people who care will have to pay for the privilege of experiencing a patch of dark sky where one can see into the depths of space and feel marvellously insignificant. 
    Forty-some years ago the only light on the horizon from this peninsula was Little Hope Island lighthouse blinking a warning to sailors that there was a dangerous spot of rock far off the Port Mouton shore. That light is now gone, a victim of rising waters and a subsiding continent. Had it not toppled, by now it would have been allowed to go dark like so many other lighthouses, on the assumption that ships have navigation systems making lights and fog horns obsolete. 
    Today, instead of one light on a far horizon we have a growing number of red lights and bright strobes blinking on other horizons marking telecommunication towers. Couldn’t federal authorities who license towers insist companies get together to erect and mount their gear on one tower rather than each their own?  Better still, let us (government) as a public service build only a minimum number of necessary towers and rent space to interested users.
    Then again, if technology has freed ships of the need for lighthouses, why do airplanes need beacons to mark towers?
Last summer the Department of Transportation, as part of a new stretch of 100-series highway by-passing our communities, installed high-caliber street lights illuminating a rural intersection. Totally unnecessary but what the heck, the feds were paying half. The glow from those three lights is the equivalent of what we would expect from a small village and takes away from the awesome enjoyment of the night sky.

Good news
    “Dirt,” my mother used to say, “is matter out of place.” Just so, the proposed Mother Canada monument on Parks Canada land on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Island would have been a blemish, dirt, on the landscape. It is welcome news that permission for a private developer to carry on with that unfortunate scheme has been pulled. Let those who thought it a clever investment buy a piece of land somewhere else for their big mamma. 
    And may the Easter bunny be kind to your children and leave lots of chocolates while on his rounds. DvL

And the winner is . . .    
Allan Hiltz and family, full-time farmers from New Ross, N.S., are this month’s winner of a copy of “Getting Rid of Alders,” their reader survey having been drawn from among those mailed in by subscribers. 
    Jobs and a seniors’ complex, the family says, are the greatest needs in their rural area. Our thanks to Allan and family, and to all RD subscribers who took the time to fill out our survey. This month the survey can be found on page 34.