The artist’s return

Artist Nicole Amyot at work

Ottawa artist Nicole Amyot at work at the junction of King Street and Queensborough Road this past Saturday – a perfect fall day for plein air painting.

So there I was this past Saturday, starting out on a walk to various parts of Queensborough to fulfill a couple of errands. It was a pleasantly warm fall day, perfect for a stroll to take some photos of the Halloween decorations that have been installed at homes throughout the village; that was one of my errands, as it happens. (As I have mentioned before, Queensborough is kind of a magical place for Halloween, and I think this year is going to be one of the best yet. Details on that soon. But I digress.)

Anyway, as I made my way south from the Manse on Bosley Road, an unusual sound caught my attention: a piece of classical music being played in the open air. It was coming from the east, from the far end of wee King Street, and as I swivelled my head in that direction I saw a vehicle parked there, back hatch open and some orange cones around it. The music seemed to be coming from it:

Artist at work from afar

“What can be going on at the end of King Street?” I wondered as I saw the vehicle parked near the former Anglican Church, classical music coming from it.

“Well that’s something a little different,” said I to myself, curiosity aroused. But I need to complete my brief Bosley Road mission before checking it out.

Happily, the vehicle was still there as I returned to the intersection and headed east on King Street. As I approached, it slowly dawned on me what I was seeing:

Artist at work closer up

Beside the parked van an easel had been set up, and an artist was at work. It was something I hadn’t seen since my long-ago childhood in Queensborough.

It was an artist at work, painting a Queensborough scene!

People, this is something that was a lovely part of my long-ago childhood here in Queensborough, but that I hadn’t seen in all the years since. My heart leapt with joy.

For those who don’t know the story of Queensborough’s close connection with (mostly) amateur artists back in the middle of the last century (when all the world was young), I refer you to a post I did on that topic here. The brief version is that in the 1960s and ’70s, artists Mary and Roman Schneider – both refugees from war-torn Eastern Europe – ran the Schneider School of Fine Arts in the hamlet of Actinolite, which along with Queensborough constitutes the sum total of clusters of settlement (and, once upon a time, commerce and industry) in Elzevir Township. Art students from all over Ontario and beyond would come to the Scheider school for a few days at a time, sleeping in rustic cabins and visiting scenic spots to set up their easels and sketch and paint. Pretty, historic little Queensborough was, needless to say, a favourite destination, and when I close my eyes I can still picture my eight-year-old self peering over the shoulder of one of the artists as he or she worked, and catch the distinctive scent of the oil paint. To me it is a magical memory.

And this past Saturday, that magical memory came to life!

Artist at work close up

Nicole Amyot at work on her painting of the dam on the Black River and the historic mill that is the heart of Queensborough.

Of course I stopped and spoke to the artist, who was Nicole Amyot of Ottawa. (The driver of the van, her good-humoured and patient chauffeur who waited and listened to the music as she worked, was her husband, Ron.) Nicole was working as quickly as she could, and didn’t stop working as she chatted, but was patient and friendly as she answered my questions. It turned out that she was revisiting her own past, just as her presence allowed me to revisit mine.

She had first come to Queensborough, she told me, about 40 years ago as a student at – you guessed it – the Schneider School of Fine Arts. Throughout the years since she has continued as a painter, though she modestly but firmly told me that she does not consider herself a professional artist. Remembering the scenes she had painted all those years ago, she and her husband had made a weekend excursion back here, lodging overnight in nearby Tweed and stopping at two or three places for her to paint those scenes once again.

Nicole Amyot's Queensborough work in progress

Work in progress: Nicole Amyot’s not-yet-complete picture (in acrylics) of the mill and dam in “downtown” Queensborough.

The painting that Nicole was working on was a scene that is pretty much the heart of Queensborough: the Black River running over the dam that once upon a time provided the water power needed for the sawmill and grist mill that still stand alongside it. (The mill too is in her painting.) It was a joy to once again watch a talented artist skillfully and quickly reproduce a pretty Queensborough scene on canvas, to see her artistic judgement at work as she considered what and what not to include, and how best to represent what her eyes were seeing.

I didn’t want to bother Nicole or slow down her work, so I made my stop brief. As a trained journalist, however, I of course collected her phone number so I could make contact again if need be.

Because hey: there might just be a wall space in the Manse where her pretty painting – which on that pleasant fall day magically brought together my present and my past – needs to be hung…

Welcome to Blue Sky Country

Black River early September

The Black River in “downtown” Queensborough on a recent sunny September day.

I’ve started noticing something about the photos I take here in the Queensborough area. It’s that despite what the ostensible subject of my photo is, there’s very often a surprise guest star – to wit, the sky. We have great sky around here.

In some ways I’ve kind of recognized that ever since Raymond and I bought the Manse. I well remember the 4½-hour drive we’d make from our then-home in Montreal on a Friday night, and the awe I would feel when first stepping out of the car here in Queensborough and looking up to see a dark, clear sky – far from the bright lights of the city – absolutely sparkling with a universe-sized blanket of stars. It was awe-inducing then; it still is.

Another time, shortly after we moved here permanently, I did a little post (it’s here) specifically about the great big skies that you notice as you’re driving past the farms and fields around us. This is the photo I used in that post, which celebrated the gorgeous clouds as well as the huge blue sky:

McKinnon barn

The McKinnon barn (Queensborough Road just west of Queensborough) under a glorious late-afternoon sky.

But I got thinking more about our clear blue skies toward the end of this past spring, sparked by a comment from a friend and former Montreal Gazette colleague. I’d done a post about moving the very last of our stuff out of the Montreal house, which we’d finally sold, and in it had used some photos of scenes that greeted us at the Manse when we arrived here with the last truck- and carload. They included a few along the lines of this one, featuring the elm tree we planted a while back…

The Manse's elm tree, spring 2016

… and this one, featuring the clothesline that I love so much:

Laundry on the clothesline, 2016

In response, Charles (who is a science buff), commented:

“Look at that clear sky. If you and Ray haven’t at least thought about getting a good-size telescope, you aren’t doing the Manse site justice. If I lived there full time, I’d build a massive Dobsonian.”

In the months since then, I’ve been paying more and more attention to the beautiful clear skies here. I especially notice them when we visit, or drive through, Toronto; I am unfailingly astounded by the smog and haze that one encounters in the air even when you’re almost an hour out from the city. It makes me appreciate the fresh clear air of my Queensborough home that much more.

Anyway, let me show you a few photos I took recently that weren’t supposed to be about the sky at all, but in which the blueness and clearness made the surprise guest appearance that I mentioned at the start of this post. I should mention that no filters have been used on any of these photos; what you see is the real thing.

Sign over Hazzards Cemetery

This photo was intended to be about the attractive metal sign over the historic cemetery at Hazzards Church, which I am pleased and proud to say was made right here in Queensborough by master craftsman Jos Pronk at Pronk Canada Inc. Queensborough Machine Shop. But when I looked at the photo afterward – man, that is about as blue as ever a sky could be!

Skies over the Plowing Match

The skies over the parking area at the recent Hastings County Plowing Match at the McKinnon Farm just west of Queensborough.

Great trees and blue sky at Feast from Farm

The most beautiful of blue skies over the scene of the recent Feast From Farm local-food event beside Stoco Lake in the village of Tweed.

Blue sky and clouds over the millpond

I took this photo to show low water levels (caused by the ongoing drought in Eastern Ontario) at Queensborough’s popular swimming spot, the millpond on the Black River. But when I looked again – that’s a pretty nice skyscape. Not to mention its reflection.

From the front porch of the Manse

The view from the Manse’s front porch – where I’m writing this post – on any given summer day.

This one was intended to show the just-starting-to-wane Harvest Moon that shone brightly over the Manse this morning as I left for work, about 7:30 a.m. But it also shows the brilliant blue of the sky that the moon is in:

Morning moon over the Manse

Here, just in case you’re interested, is a closer look at that morning moon:

Morning moon closeup

Last but not least, here is some late-summer, late-day sun on the monumental red pine that’s across the way from us. Raymond and I adore that tree; we call it the Tree of Life.

Late-summer sun on the Tree of Life

I think the perfect clear blue of the sky makes the colour of the sunlight in the upper branches that much more glorious.

So I hope I’ve made my case about the beauty of the skies around this magical place that Raymond and I have chosen to live. Now: a little Willie Nelson, anyone?

“Somebody’s going to end up in the drink!”

Curve looking southeast

With banks of snow alongside the road and the Black River covered in ice and snow, the potential for danger (in the form of an unwanted trip into the water if you happen to lose control of your vehicle) doesn’t look very severe. But take away that snow, and – well, I think we’ve got a job for the Municipality of Tweed‘s roads department.

“Somebody’s going to end up in the drink!” Those were pretty much the first words out of the mouth of my younger sister, Melanie, when she arrived here at the Manse for a family celebration this past New Year’s Day.

What she was referring to was the road into Queensborough from the southeast, which at the edge of the village takes the form of a bridge over the Black River; that is followed as you continue on into “downtown” by a curve alongside the river. The reason for Melanie’s dire prediction was the fact that very little stands between that river and any vehicle whose driver is unlucky enough to lose control in slippery conditions on the curve.

Now, in my photo at the top of this post the situation doesn’t look all that bad, but that’s because of all the snow we’ve had in recent weeks: the high banks of it alongside the road would surely prevent all but the heaviest vehicle from splashing down if the aforementioned loss of control were to happen right at the moment. But when there isn’t any snow to act as a safety wall – and keep in mind that at New Year’s, when Melanie was visiting, we had had next to no snow – well, it’s a different story. Here, take a look in this photo I took in the dog days of summer (late August) a couple of years ago:

Curve in the dog days of summer

Here’s the scene minus the snowbanks, in a photo I took to show the vegetation in the river that tells you it’s the dog days of summer. Now, picture that scene on a dark and stormy night with slippery roads, and I think you’ll agree there’s a potential hazard.

As you can see, there are a few desultory guardrails in place; but they are extremely elderly and I’m thinking it wouldn’t take much momentum to knock them over. And much of the curve has no guardrails along it at all.

I don’t want this post to sound like a complaint, because it isn’t; it’s really more of an observation, and a question about whether something should be done. I’d be interested to hear what other Queensborough-area residents think.

I also think a good argument could be made that this very pretty scene at the centre of our village looks better without additional guardrails.

But I do feel that some consideration should be given by the municipal authorities as to whether that particular stretch of road meets standard safety criteria. In this case the “municipal authorities” would be the Roads Department of the Municipality of Tweed, of which Queensborough is a part. Now, I should add for those not familiar with the Municipality of Tweed that it covers an absolutely vast area, which means that the Roads Department is responsible for maintaining a lot of roads and bridges. So I’m not at all criticizing the fact that our possible road probem hasn’t been attended to yet.

But, you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained; so here I am venturing my observations of the situation. Municipality of Tweed roads people and councillors, consider yourself alerted to an issue that might need some attention.

A sweet little optical illusion in Queensborough

Brigadoon? No, Queensborough

Here’s the optical illusion: see the white steeple of the old Anglican Church way off in the distance in about the middle of the photo? Now look a bit to the left of it and you’ll see the shape of a small, light-coloured house. Does that house not look closer to us – as we look across at it from the Manse’s driveway – than the church is? Ah, but it’s not.

A couple of months ago, when I was heading out to my car one sunny morning, I was caught completely off-guard by something. When I glanced eastward from the end of the Manse’s driveway toward the steeple of the former Anglican Church – a pretty white board-and-batten building that lies at the other end of the village, across the road from the Black River that runs through town – I was startled to see a house. And the house seemed to be located where no house now stands, though where one once did.

What the deuce was going on? How could I be seeing a house in the place where the house I think of as the old Leslie place had burned down almost three decades before?

(The Leslie place was an attractive stucco home that was occupied through all the years when I was growing up here at the Manse; I wrote about it in posts here and here.)

Of course what I saw was an optical illusion, though I confess I had to drive over and cross the Black River bridge before I quite figured out what was going on. Which was: from our place it sometimes appears, in the right kind of light, like a light-coloured house that sits east and behind of the old Anglican Church, and across the river from it, is actually in front of it and way closer to us than it actually is. It looks, in fact, like it’s about where the Leslie place, a house of a similar colour, used to be.

I laughed at myself for getting caught in that optical illusion. And then I was reminded of it this past weekend, when exactly the same thing happened: on a clear bright day, looking out in that direction, I could have sworn that the light-coloured house was sitting about a hundred yards closer to us (and to the Anglican Church) than it actually was.

I hope you won’t think I’m silly if I confide in you that the first time this illusion caught me, the word “Brigadoon” came into my head. You know, the Lerner-and-Loewe musical that was both a stage play and a movie back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the one with the song Almost Like Being in Love in it. Brigadoon is a magical village that only emerges from the Scottish mists every hundred years; if you come at the right time, you find it, and if you don’t, you’d never know it existed.

Even as I laughed at myself for seeing things, I also smiled to myself that Queensborough is such a magical little place – at least to me, and perhaps I’m not alone – that one could almost believe in a pretty old house suddenly appearing out of nowhere. And be a tiny bit sorry when that almost-belief turns out to be just an optical illusion. A nice one, though!

Gorgeous north-of-7 autumn vistas, preserved for posterity

Officially, we have a long way to go until fall 2014 turns into winter 2014. But in my view – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – fall kind of turns a corner once most of the leaves have fallen and the beautiful foliage is, for another year, just a memory. Given the time I spent raking leaves from the Manse’s lawn yesterday and today, and the general drabness of the weather forecast, I think we have pretty much reached that point. From here on in, I fear fall is going to be about greyness, and increasing chill, and weatherstripping underneath the doors, and hunkering down for winter – and, oh yeah, getting the rest of those leaves raked up.

But I have something thoroughly lovely to cheer you all with before the glorious foliage of fall 2014 fades too far into the past. Thanks yet again to the hard work and keen eye for visuals that need to be preserved for posterity of my friends Terry and Eileen Pigden of Madoc (longtime proprietors of Centre Hastings TV, the Madoc cable channel, and tireless chroniclers of local history and happenings), I can share the video that’s at the top of this post. And if my many thousands of words’ worth of ramblings since the debut of Meanwhile, at the Manse haven’t convinced you that the Manse, and Queensborough, are in a very beautiful part of the world, I think Terry and Eileen’s video will do it.

This intrepid husband-and-wife team decided to take a drive around the area on the last day of September, and fortunately for us here in Queensborough, they opted to go north of 7 and follow the route of the Black River. So in their footage you will see scenes shot along Queensborough Road going north from 7, a bit east of their home base in Madoc, and then scenes of “downtown” Queensborough – including the Manse! – and then the trip along Bosley Road, which is the road that runs in front of the Manse.

Terry’s experienced eye as a photographer and videographer shows, as he captures way better than I have hitherto managed to do (though I tried here and here) the rural landscape in all its autumn beauty. What a lovely, lovely thing to have preserved on the internet!

I’ve written about Terry and Eileen’s great work more than once before (though notably here); they have visited our area so many times, and recorded so many special events. This time, though, it’s something simpler: just a lovely drive in the country. I continue to feel so grateful to them – and again, I am sure I am not alone in this – for the work that they do. The only thing as good as living in a beautiful place is having some talented people to showcase it for all the world (and posterity) to enjoy. Thanks, Terry and Eileen!

Make way for goslings

I thought you might enjoy this little video I took a couple of evenings ago down by the millpond on the Black River here in Queensborough. Raymond and I were visiting our friends Elaine and Lud, who live there, and on heading out to the car noticed two big Canada Geese down by the water. It was only upon closer examination that we spotted the whole family of little goslings. They were so cute it almost made you feel good about Canada Geese again!

Anyway, when I approached the Goose Family to take a picture, Mum and Dad quickly and professionally herded the mob of youngsters into a straight line and marched them away. Mum (or was that Dad?) at the head of the line, a whole row of babies, then Dad (or was that Mum?) pulling up the rear. Impressive!

Just another example of all the action there is to catch in downtown Queensborough of a late-spring evening…

“How high is the water, mama?”

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“How high is the water, mama?” – do you remember that old song by Johnny Cash? Johnny was singing about the mighty, muddy Mississippi, but around central and lower Hastings County these days we’re asking that same question about the Moira River and some other watersheds – including, in recent days, the Black River that runs through Queensborough.

Thanks to the CBC and so on taking an interest, a lot of you have probably heard about the flooding problems in the Foxboro area, just north of Belleville. But in the last couple of days we up north in Queensborough have started to wonder if roads, fields and properties here are entirely safe from a river swelled by spring runoff and lots and lots of rain. The river is as high as it has probably been in most people’s lifetime.

When I did my twice-daily check of it late this afternoon, I am pretty sure that the water was a little lower than it was yesterday. For sure it wasn’t any higher. So with any luck the river won’t make its way any farther outside its banks than it already has. But let me tell you, this time yesterday it was quite something to see, as perhaps you can tell from the gallery atop this post. Man, I couldn’t believe how close the water level was to the bottom of the Queensborough bridge. Here’s a little video I shot:

Anyway, I think it is very likely that we will all survive this high water. But meanwhile, I found a real treasure of a video when I looked up that Johnny Cash song. Here’s Johnny being asked about it on black-and-white TV by none other than the recently departed (and much-lamented) Pete Seeger. Johnny appears to be wired, and was very probably in his wild substance-abusing years. June Carter (possibly not yet June Carter Cash) looks on, silent and tight-lipped, as Johnny tells the story – and eventually gets to what I think we can all agree is a great song. Sing it for us all tonight, Johnny: