Round Robin: Notes from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia gardens are locked in with winter.

| February/March 1997

People often ask us what we do in the winter, implying by their tone some misconceptions about farm life. Once the fields are blanketed with snow, doesn’t all the farmwork cease, and aren’t we bored with the idleness? Do we just snooze around the woodstove?

Well, when the wind whips around the old farmhouse, as it does now on blustery February days, we do, indeed, spend more time around the woodstove, reading, studying, writing.

There is plenty to do, though, on a farm in winter. Wood must be cut for the fireplace as well as for fence rails and posts. The horses must be shod for traveling on ice, our antique farm equipment repaired, the animals fed, their pens cleaned every day; cream must be turned into butter, milk into cheese, and on and on. It’s routine work but never boring.

It’s not the amount of work we do in the winter so much as the stress of working outside in all kinds of ­weather, trying to keep hands and feet warm, navigating ourselves and the animals over rough terrain. It takes a lot of energy to lead a thousand-pound cow through drifts of snow or across a sheet of ice to the water hole 40 yards from the barn and return safely with both the cow and a five-gallon bucket of water.

I guess this is why my mind seldom turns to gardening at this time of year. Unlike other serious gardeners I know and have read about, I don’t dream about my gardens in the winter, nor do I pore over the catalogs, nor do I start seeds early, pushing the season to get a head start. No, I’m locked into winter with the elements, with the barn animals that stoically accept their restricted regimen, with the plants resting in the frozen earth, with the wildlife around me whose only signs of life are the crisscrossing tracks along the half-mile lane to the mailbox.

We rarely see people in the winter, for the snow-packed lane is closed to all but skis, snowshoes, sleds, or foot traffic. That’s why we were astonished recently to see a short, blocky figure puffing up the last hill. It was Isidore, a fellow from the French side of the island, bringing a gift of bear oil from a recent encounter with a black bear. Isidore is a great hunter who knows the ways of wild animals. Jigs had once mentioned that bear grease makes the best harness oil for keeping leather supple, so Isidore traipsed in with his ­present.

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