Monday, August 8, 2022

Blog page will be moving to my Website

We will be moving the blog to my website very soon. Meanwhile, you can visit my News page for current thoughts. Thank you for visiting and I look forward to seeing you in the new location.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Letter from Mary Mackie, May, 1960

f you have time, more wild west stories from the Mackie family, this time from a letter that Mary Mackie wrote to her beloved parents-in-law. Context: my folks left behind a secure position with the BC Forestry Service and headed to a totally off-the-grid mountain ranch that was about 28 miles from Houston, BC in front of Nadina Mountain, building their own house (first a cottage, then the ranch house), fences etc. Though they had a garden, milk cow and beef, they raised necessary cash for other things with my mother's freelance writing for the Family Herald (Montreal Gazette), CBC and sportsman magazines. Any technical or adventure articles were signed with my father's name so that they would sell as women weren't yet allowed to write on such topics.They started with 34 head of cattle, and built to around 120 head before everything blew apart and the next adventure started.

I am lovingly revealed as a bit of a pain-in-the-neck handful in this episode... I was 17 months old and my brother Keith was almost 5 months old. I really don't know how my parents did it, especially my mother. And the Allan she refers to is my father, and Roy Munger was a senior rancher neighbour, one of many who helped and stood by us. Dick was our English ranch hand.

My mother speaks of a slow healing injury that my father had... this was from his gigantic old Pioneer chainsaw bucking and landing between the toes of his right foot when it hit a knot in a log... this is an amazing story for another time involving a lot of blood and my father trying to drive himself the 78 miles to the nearest hospital.

The photo shows Nadina Mountain in the background, with Roy Munger on horseback and my Dad branding a steer with our Diamond/M brand.

Mary Mackie:
May 1, Sunday evening (1960)

Dear Mother and Pop,
I've a feeling that somebody may be going out for the mail soon, so this won't be too ancient when it's mailed. This knowledge is based not so much upon intuition or foresight as upon the
observation that we have only 1/2 lb. of coffee left.

The mitts came up in most colourful fashion, on a real cattle drive, when Allan brought all our beef home. He gathered up the Owen Lake in 1 day. Dick camped there with them overnight.
Then, next day, they cut our 20-odd head out of the Owen Lake bunch and brought them all the last 12 miles home. Allan had borrowed a buckskin horse for the drive; somebody else had put a fringed, beaded jacket on him to keep out the raw wind; this his weather-worn cowboy hat he was a real picture when he drove the herd in. Especially with old Roy on hand, every inch the cowboy though he approaches the age where he is supposed to sit easier in the rocking chair than in the

Anyway, all the cattle are home now except for the 1 young bull whose presence will not be welcome for another couple of months. All 34 of them are in the yard here. I was afraid to go
outdoors the first day. But I find that they are extremely calm creatures and have never seen the slightest orneriness in any of them.

It was real suspense when Allan and Dick when down to the silo, and uncovered the contents. Without a plastic top, about half the silage had spoiled - assisted by a few moose-tracks. Then,
more suspense as a load of the good stuff was brought up to the cattle. They didn't seem to know what to do with it at first. Within a day, however, they all began to bellow and roar as soon as the
cat engine started. They started eating about a ton a day, getting fatter before our eyes.

One old cow had her calf a few days ago. We all had to stand guard to keep the others away, even Nadina was there. The calf was born in the heat of afternoon, he was on his feet at 7 min., he
was galloping around his mother by sundown, and next morning he was playing tag with the other calves. He's the goofiest calf on the claim. We attribute a lot of this good health and high spirits to the silage. The same cows - i.e. cows that wintered on this same feed - over at Owen Lake, are extremely weak. Some of them could barely get out of the chute after they'd been branded last week.
Anyway... thank you for the mitts! I'm happy to say that the weather has been so hot lately that they've not been needed yet. But they will be.

We are so delighted to hear that you have definite plans made to come up this year. I hope you can stay long enough for the kids to really get to know you. We've wished so often that they could
grow up a little closer to you. At the rate Nadina is coming along lately, she'll be ready to really soak up a lot of stories and visiting. I hope your shoulder is better by then, as these two don't
know much about sitting quietly.

The other day I was out bonfiring some old willows. Allan brought Nadina out to watch. She studied this tremendous blaze, choked on the smoke, and cried out, "Toast?" She knows such a lot
of words and can state her wishes fairly well. She demands from morning till night but if we survive without repressing her too much, she should have terrific drive and spunk. Keith is a marvel. This morning we noticed that Nadina woke up peacefully and did not scream at us to rush in with clean diapers, breakfast, rides, warm-ups in our bed etc. Then we also noticed that she was grinning something fierce - face all screwed up and all her teeth
showing. Dawned on us - she was imitating Keith! He's like an angel in the morning - wakes us with soft cooing and efforts to talk. When we shuffle in to him, he smiles fit to burst, and usually
waits cheerfully until his breakfast is ready. We've NEVER told Nadina that she had to be like Keith or anybody else except herself - but I guess his behaviour is plain even to another baby.

Recently when Dick and Allan came in for morning coffee, Nadina picked up Dick's hat where he'd tossed it. She put it on her head, then searched around until she found a long grouse feather
which she clamped between her teeth. Then, hands behind her back, she stomped up and down the room puffing on her pipe doing such a good imitation of him that we were momentarily
rendered helpless. I don't really know what Dick, a middle-aged English bachelor, thinks of all this. Especially when she shrieks, "Hi, Dickeeeeeee?" every time he enters the house.

This fellow has been a terrific help to us. Two men working quite vigorously accomplish as much as 4 men working alone. It is very noticeable, though I think all that we did last year makes
progress all that much easier every succeeding year. Dick supplies us with many laughs both consciously and otherwise. He reduced us to hysteria one evening by talking of English fashion in hats, and how he used to like wearing a proper bowler. Like them, that is, until one episode on a London bus when, playing the gentleman, he gave up his seat to a woman passenger. As he was the only person then standing, he went forward to converse with the driver. As they went along,
the bus hit a tremendous hole in the pavement. Dick rocketted skyward, came in sudden contact with the bus roof, and had his bowler hat hammered down over his eyes. As he fought with one
hand to raise it, laughter filled the bus to overflowing and thus they sped merrily through the London night.... Then, UN-consciously, there is his unfortunate speech impediment which causes him, an extremely large and brawny fellow, to turn all his R's into W's. It nearly dwives us cwazy at times, twying to keep faces stwaight. It took us days to reach any sensible conclusions following a conversation on Rotary Mower down at Brewer's.

Allan's foot has finally healed (touch wood). So many times it seemed all right, and next day it would be open and weeping again. Then a piece of splintered bone came out and it has stayed healed ever since. He had another week's trouble with his ankle - trying to throw his weight off the ball of the foot caused so much irritation against his boot that an infection started there. He was laid up several days with that. But the past week he's been fine, thank goodness, and has had the dressings off for the first time in 2 months.

The two of us had a Day Off, just before leaving Paradise Lodge. A neighbour who is extremelygood with kids, stayed the night with Nadina and Keith. We had to get the jeep fixed, buy supplies
and whatnot before leaving civilization. We stayed at The Hotel overnight, ate in the dining room,and had what would have been a routine trip to town some years ago, but what we now consider A Time. We visited friends, and also made a tape recording of the script I did for CBC. We both thought the latter turned out very well, so I was terribly disappointed when they labelled it "Not up
to broadcast standards" and returned it. So Eileen Laurie will be reading it (next Sept.) on Trans Canada Matinee...meantime I sent it off to BBC. I sent off a set of photos to Alaska Sportsman and they were snapped up like mad. The photographers field is a far broader one than the writer's, I can see that - but their pay is correspondingly lower.

Well, yesterday (Sunday) has evolved into today (Washday) and we've had company already this morning amid all the litter of baby bottles and power saws and whatnot. A little Dutch man is
preparing to go logging behind our place and he is here with a very polite Young Dutch Man, looking things over. Their manners are a pleasant surprise in this day and age.

I will never have time to write all this down again in my journal, so would you save this from the flames where it probably belongs, and return it with your next letter? It's a weird plan, but helps
me in writing. I whomped up a story in 2 evenings last week from just such oddments - and with Allan's photographs, have a strong hunch it will bring in another month's groceries. Oddly enough, it's the small, tedious details that make the story - if you have only the broad outline and can't fill in the meat on the bird's skeleton, you have no story that anybody cares to read.

Now I must get this washload out before it shreds. thanks for your letters...hope you have a splendid tour this summer.

(signature written in pen, using her first name (Mary) with a handwritten postscript)
Love Ida & Co.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Building the Wall - improvising a garden fence

Today, I loaded up my German axe, Canadian pry bar (pictured later), Swede saw and Japanese pull saw and headed down the road to cut some fence posts. Who says we can't travel these days, at least, in our imaginations?

My neighbours said I could take some trees from their large wooded property, so I cut three 30' spruce and bucked them into 7' sections before I had to go home for a snack and a nap.

Though we had snow last week, spring has now come for real and the exotic trilliums are all starting to open in the forest. And everyone knows, the black flies come at the same time as the flowers, so I was working in a dense fog of bug dope and hopeful bugs.

Before the journey into the forest, the day started with an expert delivery of the second load of alpaca poo top soil, paid for in the local currency of cookies. 

Neighbour Doug carefully places top soil on the pyramid...

 yesterday, I added some branches to hold things in place until the pile sinks more and the soon-to-be-planted vegetables develop roots

Back to the forest...
I found some 30' spruce with small butts of about 14" circumference (4-5" across).
I used the double-bitted axe to start the cut, then the swede or japanese pull saw to finish.
I think it would be faster to do it all with the axe but sometimes the access point
is a bit awkward for the axe (or axe person).
I feel a mixture of gratitude and remorse every time I take a tree,
so I leave the site as clean as possible,
distribute the branches,
and I say thank you.

I found this one back from the road

it fell easily, clearing the other trees... then I limbed it and bucked it into three 7' sections.

Next tree was up on a hill, which proved to be a bit windier than ideal
I limb as many branches as I can reach before making the first cut in the direction I want the tree to fall

Tree looks bigger than it was... the wind blew it slightly off course and it got briefly hung up
in a crux of other branches and trees

I needed to use the pry bar to pop it off the stump

I could imagine my father laughing quietly as I huffed and puffed and pulled the tree out.

As I stopped to swat blackflies (futile), I spotted this neon orange fungus

My neighbours told me to fall any that were close to the road since they need to keep 
the sides clear, so I did! 
Glad that traffic was light today (non existent)

My aim is improving! 

A decent load of fence poles to get me started.

I am covered in sap, bug bites and bug dope but otherwise unscarred.
I learned tonight that rubbing alcohol will clean sticky sap off of the axe and saw blades... wonder if that will work on my jeans too?

Unloaded the poles and then thoroughly watered the soil.
The hose leaks, so that is a mist of water, not steam, arising from the Hugel pile.

And the gopher who lives beside my garage decided it was time to build his own Hugel pile.

Tomorrow, peel the logs (well, poles) and my garden wall starts to go up!

Take good care of yourselves and thank you for reading
about my quiet adventures 
beyond yet nonetheless including
the world of 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Hugelkultur Garden - building on the past

When I decided to sell my one-of-a-kind church/concert hall in 2018 and move up north to the last log house that my father built, many of my friends and colleagues said it was a mistake since I would be far away from the hustle and musical bustle of the Canadian metropolis of Toronto. They were sure it would lead to fewer concerts and opportunities for me. Now that Covid19 has taken charge, that equation has changed.

I'm still practicing, still getting ready to publish my new bassoon tech book, still working on the rest of the renovations and helping relaunch the Council of Canadian Bassoonists, but because I am no longer driving 4000 per month, I am using that time in new ways. And going outside and working on digging and moving logs through pivoting, prying and different types of leverage seemed like just another a great idea.

There was a pile of logs in the field behind our house, good timbers that had been left over from the building of the house. They had rotted from being exposed to the elements, and I didn't know what to do with them. It made me sad to see them so neglected and awry.

Then my accountant suggested I create a Hugelkultur garden.

The principle is to make a tall layer cake of rotting wood, branches and other organic material, cover it all with dirt and build a garden, preferably by digging into the ground and then stacking up to six feet. Anything that is non-toxic (so no cedar, walnut, or painted woods and no seed-bearing silage). Over time, it becomes a nitrogen-rich biomass that doesn't require much watering because the rotting wood acts as a sponge.

I jumped at the idea because it would allow me to process the orphaned logs in a positive way. I started at the beginning of April, and was delayed by snow and by awaiting delivery of my peavey and pry bar, but I should be able to plant my seedlings by May 24 at the latest. 

Here is a picture journal of some of the many steps that it took to get to the point where I think I will be able to plant the seedlings this week.

The logs were piled in a jumble along with boards and firewood behind the house, the remains of parts of the house that were re-designed along with the construction stairs and other artefacts, 

including rotted planks 

and stair stringers. 
Kinda makes my heart clutch to see the fine work of my
old Dad before gently laying these into the trenches alongside the sections of logs.

Even though it was still a bit cold at the beginning of April, I started the first trenches.
I hit hard clay at about 14 inches.... after hammering at it for awhile, decided that 14-18" was deep enough. 
Specialized foot gear!
Though the running shoes are more comfortable, I had to switch to
rubber bogs so that I could actually walk!

Three logs were buried by April 12, then I had to figure out how
to cut the 18' log into three... I still didn't have my peavey (log rolling tool)

So I began chopping with my fine throwing axe, but needed to turn the log... 

So I tried hammering in a wedge and using a piece of angle iron to roll it, and it worked a little, but also felt unsafe with the angle iron bowing  a lot, so I stopped.

You can see two thirds of the long log on the far right...

Went into the crown land forest and gathered a couple of bags of dried maple and oak leaves.

I kept chopping...

And finally my peavey arrived! it had been held up by the slower mail during Cootie 19.
I had to assemble the hook and happened to have a 5/8ths wrench handy.

And I was able to roll the log and easily finish chopping on the other side.

Here is the long log in 2 pieces, and now that I had the peavey, I chopped it into three pieces 

and rolled all three into the Hugel bed on top of the 4 buried logs

Then I had to get the log that was around the back and roll it to the side

and make a ramp with two old planks on top of the pile of dirt that I had dug out from the trenches
I rolled with one hand, then jammed the pry bar in the dirt to hold the log and put old pieces of firewood under the log at each turn to hold it in position so that I could remove the peavey and take another grip.

Rolled it over the top and into the last trench

Now back to the south side and figuring out how to move this log straight ahead from its position. 
My brand new, 18 pound "Cougar" (hahahaha) pry bar is a thing of total joy.

Moving towards the dirt pile, realizing that I will get jammed unless I put a piece of old plywood under it as a skid

Close up of my Dad's numbering system for identifying all the logs when dissassembling log hoses for a move... these are the lids for canning preserves, held on with a galvanized nail

Using the pry bar to straighten out the log (pivot points are an amazing thing)

Setting the log on the plywood skid, then I just pried and pushed it until it was in position

Had to add planks to get it across the grass

and kept using pieces of old firewood to keep the log in position and headed straight

made it! now to roll into position

Just before rolling into the Hugel bed

And in position, with my beautiful cadmium red pry bar contrasting beautifully with the rotten wood.
Even though the wood is rotten, the heart of these white pine logs is sound and they are heavy!
Now to pry the last log into it's new spot... flattened on both sides, this will be a useful low table for the garden
The last of the 13 log sections is half buried in the soil of the field, but the red pry bar and a couple of strategically placed planks make movement simple.

Walked it over, wriggling each end with pry bar

Making a skid surface with plywood and plank

and in position

Here are all the tools that really helped me so much... the small shovel with the really long handle, the 4' antique pry bar that Peter McEwen loaned to me, my brand new 4' Keystone peavey sent to me by Maurice Gardy and the 5', 18 lb Cougar pry bar that can move and lever and lift stones, logs and more

Time to clean up the long-standing fire pile... there had been a complete fire ban in the township so I moved all the branches over to the garden

stacked the branches

then went through them all and broke them into straight pieces so the pile will stay stable and not bounce when I add more logs to top

sawed up a piece of deadfall beside the road and loaded into truck

added to pile
went down the forest section of the road and filled truck with rotted deadfall... when I perceive the value of the rotted wood, then it feel like I am finding treasure! the rotted wood is quite light.

My dear neighbour Doug arriving with a bucket load of nicely rotted alpaca manure

The fields have dried up beautifully with the winds so the heavy tractor can safely cross

terrified salamander had ridden over in the tractor bucket ... he quickly found a safe hiding spot in the garden pile

little garter snake inspects the garden pile, asks what I'm doing there since he decided it was a good snake castle
told the snake I'm here to stay 

dug four fence post holes, trying to plan what kind of summer fence I will install.
The blackflies are out now that the snow is finally gone (swat, sweat, spray bug dope)

From the base of the buried logs to the crown of the topsoil will be at least 5', which is very respectable. It will sink into the ground in the coming months and can support a garden for years to come.

I added another layer of field dirt and some terracing, awaiting the next load of alpaca poop that is coming tomorrow. 

To be continued!

And once the bugs are gone in August, I just might play a concert by the garden.