A baby bittern: not something you see every day

Baby bittern on the road

What’s that long-necked creature crossing the road? Well, Raymond and I are pretty sure it was a baby bittern.

When travelling between our new(ish) home in Queensborough and our old home (now up for sale) in Montreal, Raymond and I, being sensible folk, like to avoid Highway 401 as much as possible. Clever Raymond has discovered a route that takes us along Highway 7 between Queensborough Road and Perth, Lanark/Leeds and Grenville County Road 1 between Perth and the village of Toledo (I love that name), and Leeds and Grenville Road 29 between Toledo and Brockville. Sadly, the rest of the trip is still the 401, but those smaller, scenic roads are lovely to drive on, especially at this time of year.

It was while we were on Leeds and Grenville Road 1 the other day, somewhere between Toledo and the almost-not-there hamlet of Mott’s Mills, that we had to brake hard for a creature trying to cross the road. No, this time (for a change) it wasn’t a turtle; it was a baby bird of some sort. We got a little closer and Raymond said, “I think it’s a baby bittern!” And I had to agree.

Now, Raymond and I consider ourselves quite expert at bitterns. (Don’t worry, I’m being facetious here). After all, not only have we spotted an adult one by the side of Queensborough Road (I wrote about that here), but throughout this past spring we listened to the deep gurgly-type song of one who inhabits a marshy area just down the road from the Manse.

Okay, so maybe that’s not quite enough knowledge to be sure that the baby we spotted out on that country road was a bittern. But it held its long neck and head high, just like an adult bittern does; really it was just like an adult bittern in miniature.

I hope you will be relieved to know that we shooed it off the road. Actually it shooed itself; as I gently approached to try to take its picture, it decided it would be much better off in the undergrowth. And of course it was, at least when it came to its safety. It was puzzling why the mother was nowhere to be seen, and I hope no harm had come to her.

Baby bittern off the road

The baby bittern gives me one last look before heading off into the bush.

Anyway, because our baby bittern didn’t really want to have its photo taken, it’s pretty far off in my pictures. But please take a look and tell me if you agree with our latest bird-identification effort.

What is “North of 7”?

Highway 7

This photo of Highway 7, which I took this very afternoon, gives you a sense, I think, of what a geographical divide it is between “the fat south/with inches of soil on/earth’s round belly,” as the poet Al Purdy put it, and the “lakeland rockland hill country” of the Canadian Shield, as Purdy also said. Note the rock through which the highway had to be blasted.

If you’re a regular, or even occasional, reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “north of 7” with some regularity. If you live in or are from the Queensborough area or quite a wide swath around it, you will be instantly familiar with the phrase and know what it means.

But I always keep in mind that it probably doesn’t mean a thing to readers from elsewhere, and so every time I use it I try to get in some kind of an ever-so-brief explanation – often something as simple as noting that “7” refers to Ontario Highway 7.

So I thought it might be useful, both for readers and perhaps especially for me, to try to give a once-and-for-all explanation so that every time I say “north of 7” in future posts I can just link back to this one (for those who are puzzled and want more information) and so that I won’t have to explain it every time.

Okay, so what is “north of 7”?

Well, to begin with – and the main reason why I use the term so often – it’s where Queensborough is, and thus by extension where the Manse is. Living here makes Raymond and me by definition north-of-7 people.

And yes, “7” is Highway 7, or, if you want to get all formal about it, “The King’s Highway 7” – though why ownership hasn’t been transferred to the current female monarch, who has, after all, been ruling for sixty-two years, is kind of beyond me. I have many times linked to the Highway 7 section of the very interesting website The King’s Highway (thekingshighway.ca) that is put together by Cameron Bevers, who has a vast interest in the geography and history of Ontario’s highways. If you’ve never gone to those links I urge you to check them out: go here to get not only some quick facts about Highway 7, but also an excellent recounting of its history, and here to see some great historical photos of it.

But why does being “north of 7” constitute a state of being that is so different from, say, “south of 7” (or, for that matter, “north of the 401,” or “north of Highway 2“)?

Well, I’m no expert in this stuff, but here’s my take on it. People, if you have information to add, or a different perspective on this locally important subject, please share your knowledge in the comments section!

Basically, in Hastings County, Highway 7 (which runs east-west) is the unofficial yet remarkably accurate demarcation between the rich (agriculturally speaking) lands to the south, down to Lake Ontario, and the Canadian Shield. North of 7 is where the soil thins out dramatically, where rocks and lakes and evergreen trees take over from wide-open fields and big, flourishing farms. Yes, there are pockets of reasonable soil and some nice farms north of 7; but they are relatively few and far between. For the most part, north of 7 is a different kind of country altogether.

It is the country that poet Al Purdy so memorably described in his poem The Country North of Belleville. (You can read all about that poem, and read the poem itself, in my post here). Except when Purdy was talking about “bush land scrub land … lakeland rockland and hill country” he really was describing “the country north of 7” more than “the country north of Belleville.” (I think the latter title just sounded better to him, and it is very possible that more of his potential readers would have twigged to “Belleville” in the title than to “7.”)

“This is the country of our defeat,” Purdy says, taking on the identity of one or all of the would-be farmers who tried to make a go of it in the land north of 7 after it was opened up in the 19th century. It is, he says,

… where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble
                backbreaking days
                in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                noble struggle of being a fool…

As it happens, there is a just-published book on the very subject of Hastings County north of 7 being “the country of defeat” for early pioneers. It is called The Trail of Broken Hearts (you can read all about it here), and it is by Paul Kirby, a writer and publisher who has done an enormous amount to explore and share the history of Hastings County. The Trail of Broken Hearts of the book’s title is the Old Hastings Road, which I wrote about at length here and which is the perfect symbol for the tough times that people of past generations have dealt with in the land now known as “north of 7.”

Not that there was a Highway 7 in pioneer times, of course. As I wrote here, the local section of the highway was built during the Great Depression as an employment project. Here is a wonderful photo of that time, which I have thanks to Keith Millard, a descendent of an early family here in Elzevir Township, the Kleinsteubers:

Highway 7 under construction, 1932

Highway 7 (in the Actinolite area, a bit southeast of Queensborough) when it was under construction in 1932. (Photo courtesy of Keith Millard)

What is interesting is that when it came to constructing that roadway, the powers that be, whether consciously or unconsciously, did lay it out in a path that demarcated two different ways of living.

But I think it’s fair to say that “north of 7” isn’t just a geographical thing; it’s also a state of mind. Longtime residents have told me they remember the days when if you lived north of 7 – say in Queensborough, or Cooper, or Eldorado, or Bannockburn, or Millbridge, or Gilmour, or maybe way up north in Coe Hill or Ormsby or Bancroft (where the writer of the excellent blog Living North of 7 [livingnorthof7.com] is based) – some people from south of 7 would look down their noses at you. You might be considered the Canadian version of a hillbilly, in other words. And l think there is no doubt that over the years, some hillbilly types have chosen to live in these relatively remote and undisturbed parts. But so have people who just want to get away from it all; if you want to be left alone, this traditionally has been a pretty good place to do it.

I don’t know whether any misguided people south of 7 still look down their noses at those of us who choose to live north of 7. But I do know that times are changing, and areas that were once seen as remote and forbidding are becoming ever-more-sought-after by people – and I’m not talking hillbillies here – who want to live, even if only part of the time, in a place that is quiet and beautiful and unspoiled. Like this:

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So yeah, I think “quiet, beautiful and unspoiled” pretty much sums up north of 7. And I know I am far from the only person who is very proud indeed to call “north of 7” by another term. That would be: home.

A McDonald’s in Madoc, on the “bypass”: good or bad thing?

McDonald's is open for business in Madoc, and it was big news in the local newspapers. This photo is from the Belleville Intelligencer, and you can read reporter Mark Hoult's report on the new business here.

McDonald’s is open for business in Madoc, and it was big news in the local newspapers. This photo is from the Belleville Intelligencer, and you can read reporter Mark Hoult’s report on the new business (still, as of the time the photo was taken, minus the giant Golden Arches) here.

It was a big deal for the small village of Madoc when it was announced several months ago that a McDonald’s franchise would be built just outside town – on what we used to call, back in the day, “the bypass.” Those days of the 1960s and early 1970s were when terrible things happened to towns large and small thanks to the “modern” idea of “the bypass.” They were the days when good highways were new, gas was cheap, and speed was what one wanted in travel. Ergo, bypassing towns in which you had to reduce your speed to 30 miles an hour (this was before metric, people) via a highway just outside of the town limits was considered a highly desirable thing. And the result was that an incredible number of villages and towns were “bypassed” – by the traffic, and thus by economic opportunity. And ruined, or very nearly. It was basically the worst civic-planning decision of all time. All in the name of progress.

But anyway, the bypass of downtown Madoc exists in the form of “Number Seven Highway,” as people of a certain vintage charmingly call it. No. 7 is the Trans-Canada, and zips straight through from Ottawa to Peterborough and thence carries on along the northern edge of Toronto, though many westbound travellers head south at Peterborough, via Highways 35/115, to the 401 and on to Toronto.

At the point on “the bypass” where it intersects with another highway, #62 running straight north from Belleville through Madoc and on to Bancroft and beyond, a bit of a commercial centre is springing up. There is a Tim Horton’s and an Ultramar – and, as of these past recent weeks, a McDonald’s. You can’t blame these operations for choosing location, location, location; it’s a busy crossroads, not only for cars but also for transport trucks and, in their various seasons, ATVs and snowmobiles. The parking lot at the new, open-24-hours McDonald’s is set up for all those vehicles and buses too.

I’ve heard a lot of local people express dismay at the coming of the Golden Arches. They worry – justifiably – about travellers, and locals too, stopping there for breakfast or lunch or supper rather than patronizing the restaurants in town, off the bypass. They see it as an unwelcome intrusion by Corporate America into a pretty, unique and off-the-beaten-track little village. I totally get that.

There’s another side to the coin, though. For one thing, my understanding is that the McDonald’s has agreed to have a sizeable display of brochures and other local tourist information. If travellers who would ordinarily whiz by will now stop at the Madoc McDonald’s – “McMadoc,” as the ads in the local papers call it, which I find rather cute – for a bathroom break at minimum, and maybe a meal, and into the bargain are able to find out what lies in the area beyond the bypass – well, they might just possibly venture a bit south into the village itself. And they will discover treasures like the Hidden Goldmine Bakery and the Country Treasures gift, antiques and collectibles store, not to mention coffeehouse Amazing Coffee, Johnston’s venerable gift shop and pharmacy, the fantastic One Stop Butcher Shop, the Barley restaurant and pub, a couple of good pizza places, and quite a lot more. Or they might decide to turn north and discover the O’Hara Mill living-history site and conservation area, or try some Eldorado Cheese Factory cheese, or go as far north as Bancroft, “The Mineral Capital of Canada” – or even, if we Queensborough folks have our planned walking-tour brochures on display, come and see beautiful and historic little Queensborough.

And aside from all that, McDonald’s is very good about having wi-fi available, helpful in an area where internet connections can still be a tad dicey. And it will be handy too for those who might want a late-night nosh in a place where most restaurants are closed pretty early in the evening. Or to any of us on the occasion once or twice a year when we really crave a Sausage McMuffin With Cheese.

And it brings jobs, which is not a small consideration.

So I am going to vote, for now, on the positive side of the new McDonald’s, the McMadoc. And hope it doesn’t turns out to have been a terrible move.

Like the bypass.

Lights shining in the darkness

christmas_lights

It is Epiphany, people, and do you know what that means? Okay, well, yes, it means it’s the day on which we (western Christians, anyway) mark the visit of the three kings, or wise men, to the baby Jesus. It’s also known as Twelfth Night – the “twelfth day of Christmas,” as that annoyingly catchy song has it. (If you saw the Stratford Festival‘s production of Shakespeare’s comedy of that name a couple of years back, lucky you!)

But it also means, to my mind and I hope to the minds of all right-thinking people, that after today Christmas is over and done, and it is time to move on. And that in turn means: as lovely as your Christmas tree and your outdoor Christmas lights may have been again this year, it is time for them to go. Christmas lights still shining in late January or even February (and sometimes even later than that) are just, well – not right.

However, I wanted to say in these waning hours of the Christmas season how particularly enjoyable I have found looking at Christmas lights this year.

When I was a little girl growing up at the Manse, my mum used to find it a real treat to “go for a drive and see the lights.” I kind of wondered what the fuss was about. (And in retrospect I think one reason she liked it was simply that it was a chance to get out of the house she shared with a husband and four little kids, and away from her minister’s-wife and professional [she was a high-school teacher] duties for a little while. It was a respite, basically.) She especially loved to go look at the lights when we were visiting a city, like say Peterborough, where my grandparents, her parents, had retired. I think she enjoyed seeing a lot of displays all at once, and comparing and contrasting different households’ efforts.

Our own household’s effort at the Manse in Queensborough was never particularly spectacular. We had one string of multicoloured lights like the ones in the picture at the top of this post, and my father the minister – who didn’t put much store in anything along the lines of aesthetics or decorative work – would, grudgingly and after many reminders, put a minimalist effort into getting them strung up along the roofline of the Manse’s front porch. They were never remotely like those straight-as-an-arrow displays that many homes had; we kids used to joke that Dad kept tossing the lights up in the general direction of the nails installed for that purpose, and once they stayed he left them alone. So they tended to be a bit droopy and helter-skelter. But at least they shone out into the darkness of winter nights, and there is a lot to be said for that.

Which Raymond and I have really come to appreciate this winter as we have been driving back and forth between Queensborough and Montreal. Usually we drive Q’boro-ward on Friday night after work, and we take a backroads route that we found by happy accident after being stuck too many times in awful Highway 401 traffic backups around construction near Gananoque, Ont. We get off the dreaded 401 at Brockville and drive northwest through little places like Addison and Toledo and Mott’s Mills and Frankville and Rideau Ferry and Lombardy and then the “big city” of Perth, and once we get to Perth it’s only a blessed hour and 10 or 15 minutes along good old Highway 7 (the Trans-Canada) and Queensborough Road to our happy unfinished work-in-progress Manse in downtown Queensborough.

And as we drive along those dark country roads and through tiny country communities, we have been thrilled by, and appreciative of, the festive lights we have seen. My mum may have liked to see lights all together in the city, but I think I prefer them coming at us individually, through the deep darkness of the rural night. You are driving along in darkness and snow, and it’s kind of a lonely feeling even if you are in a nice warm car, but seeing a display of festive lights at a house (or better yet, a village or a town) makes you feel less lonely. When people have really gone out and done their best to make a beautiful seasonal display, then it’s just that much more warming and cheering.

So more power to you, Christmas-lights-people! But now, after Epiphany, the magic is done and the lights have to go. We will see and enjoy them again next Christmas, next winter. Now, the nights just have to be dark.

Which perhaps makes the lights of home – our happy Manse in lovely Queensborough – more welcome than ever.

The Big Dipper over Queensborough

When Raymond and I visit the Manse for a weekend, we often drive in on Friday night after work in Montreal – and since it’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive and our workday never ends early, that means we always get in quite late.

While the drive is long, it’s a pleasant one; we take mostly back roads, though the next-to-final stretch is the 60-odd-mile drive on Highway 7, the Trans-Canada Highway, from Perth, Ont., to Queensborough Road just west of Actinolite. Then again, while Highway 7 may be the Trans-Canada Highway and a main route through the area, it’s a quiet area – and the highway is like a back road compared to the wide and busy 401 not all that many miles south.

Anyway, it’s always a lovely feeling to turn north off 7 and onto Queensborough Road, knowing that in a few short minutes we’ll be at the Manse. There are no lights along that road save for the odd house light that might still be on at that late hour, and the darkness means two things: one, you have to watch out for the local wildlife (raccoons, skunks, turtles, porcupines, frogs, muskrats, deer) that might be on or crossing the road; and two, suddenly, if it’s a clear night, you can see the stars in all their brightness and magnificence.

I love looking at the stars on a clear dark night, more so since I’ve lived in the city where one really can’t see them. My father was knowledgeable about the stars and constellations, and I have very happy memories of him pointing them out to me. (I wrote here about the time he and I visited my aunt and his sister, Marion Sedgwick, when she was on a mission posting with the United Church of Canada teaching nursing in remotest Papua New Guinea, and he got up night after night to scan the skies so he could show me the Southern Cross.) Mind you, I never quite got the hang of those constellations; the only one that I ever could and still can actually find on my own is the Big Dipper, which I’ve been looking for in the skies since I was a tiny child and that always seems like a comforting old friend when I find it.

Which I did on the most recent late Friday night. As we drove the last few miles to the Manse along Queensborough Road, the Big Dipper was straight ahead and above us.

Shining right over Queensborough. A good sign.

Is this thriving general store a model for Queensborough?

The general store in tiny Castleton, Ont.: if Castleton can do it, why not Queensborough? (Photo by Will S. via Flickr)

I’ve written before about the excellent blog Ancestral Roofs (ancestralroofs.blogspot.ca). It explores heritage and architecture, with a particular focus on southeastern Ontario, including Hastings County. Pretty and historic little Queensborough is frequently cited in it, to my great pleasure (and, I’m sure, those of other Queensboroughians who love to see the attributes of our hamlet celebrated).

Anyway, one recent post at Ancestral Roofs has been buzzing around in my head for a while. In the post (which is here) we read about the general store in Castleton, Ont.: “Post Office, LCBO, general merchandise – what more could a village want? Judging by the traffic in and out, folks are pretty satisfied with the services offered. Built in 1870, and featuring some of the original counters and display cases, the building has Greek Revival grandeur – reminds me of the old store in Queensborough, though the years have been kinder to this structure.” (There are also some beautiful photos showing details of the building. Go have a look!)

I learned a bit more about the store at the Visit Cramahe website. (Castleton is a hamlet in Cramahe Township, which is part of Northumberland County – the county immediately to the west of Hastings County, where Queensborough is.) Here’s what that site’s page on the store tells us:

“You will truly take a step back in time when you visit the Castleton General Store. Built in 1870, it still contains some of its original countertops and display cases. Now one of the longest continually run general stores in Canada, it is very well known for its ice cream lineups in the summertime. The store also offers a variety of gifts and groceries. Open 7 days a week until 9 p.m. For more information call (905) 344-7341.”

Now, here’s what else I found out about Castleton while doing some quick research for this post: the population is only about 350 people! That’s not vastly more than the population of what I like to call the Greater Queensborough Area, which would include Queensborough proper, the reasonably well-populated area to the east of it on Declair Road and Rockies Road, the hamlet of Cooper, the hamlet of Hazzard’s Corners, the homes south of town on Bosley Road, and the homes west of town on Queensborough Road.

In addition, Castleton is located more closely to a “town” than is Queensborough: it is less than 15 minutes to Colborne (and Highway 401), whereas it’s 15 minutes or a little better from Queensborough to either Madoc or Tweed (both of which are still half an hour north of the 401).

So here’s what I’m getting at: if tiny Castleton, population 350ish, can support a thriving general store, could Queensborough do so once again? (I wrote about the general stores of old here.) It certainly would not hurt one bit if such a store were able to have Liquor Control Board of Ontario and Beer Store franchises, as the one in Castleton does. Not that I’m suggesting the people of Queensborough (or Castleton, for that matter) are lushes, but hey: it’s a draw for a community if people are able to buy wine, beer or spirits there – in addition to food and other essentials, of course!

Since we bought the Manse, several people in Queensborough have been kind enough to say that if we ever run out of anything – milk, eggs – to not hesitate to come borrow it from them. And we’ve also been told that people making a run to Madoc or Tweed or Belleville don’t mind picking up necessities for others.

But wouldn’t it be awesome if Queensborough, like Castleton, boasted a place to mail a letter, to buy a hot cup of coffee or a newspaper or an ice-cream cone, to pick up the milk and butter and eggs and toilet paper that you always need, as well as perhaps some locally made home baking or handicrafts, maybe some freshly picked local corn or tomatoes or blueberries, and maybe some beer or a bottle of wine, maybe even some gardening or hardware materials: to me, that would be absolute heaven. We could enjoy the Manse and never have to go anywhere if we didn’t want to!

I know that a couple in Queensborough are thinking of – actually, I think they have moved beyond the “thinking” to the “planning” stage – opening a café that might have a store or even bed-and-breakfast component. That would be so terrific.

I think tiny Castleton can show us the way!

From the Manse to Montreal, and the miles in between

Me on our porch at the Manse during a brief visit there yesterday. Do I look happy?

This morning I woke up very early at the Manse, brilliant sunlight streaming through every window in the place, a light bright frost on the ground outside that was rapidly dispelling in the heat of that sun, and a nice pot of Tim Horton’s coffee that had been ground in Ancaster, Ont., two days before, waiting downstairs, thanks to Raymond. Who is always an earlier riser than I, not to mention a better person; and who puts the coffee on. (How do I know about the coffee’s provenance? Because at the Ontario Newspaper Awards in Hamilton Saturday night, Tim Horton’s was a new sponsor – and a very welcome one indeed – and every attendee received a nice mug and pouch of very-freshly-and-locally-ground coffeee. This is terrific PR by the Tim Horton’s folks, I have to say.)

Raymond enjoying a warm, sunny and pleasantly wasp-free late Sunday afternoon on his Manse porch. And around him, a garden that is starting to grow! But there were a few blackflies, and they really bit him. (Apparently he tastes good, at least to the blackflies. I must be sour; they left me alone!)

Anyway, this morning there wasn’t much time for anything but gulping that mug of coffee down in the early morning at the Manse, while Raymond was out on the front porch enjoying the sun and waving back to the neighbours and the school-bus driver (because they wave to you, and of course you wave back; that’s how it’s done in Queensborough) as they went by. And then we packed ourselves into the car for the not-quite-four-hour-drive back to busy Montreal and our busy real lives. I am the lucky one, in that Raymond generally does the driving, the big tear on the 401. And practically before I knew it I was in the office, editing thoughtful commentary from well-known Quebec writers, putting out a small fire or two, and generally dealing with what goes on in the office of a large(ish) media company – while Raymond was, I think, dealing with more troublesome issues, but also things to be expected in a 2012 media company. Both of us were so far, in every way, and in really such a short time, from the Queensborough woodpecker who pecks so loudly (including this morning) that the whole village can hear him!

But it’s quite lovely to have a foot in both worlds. Lately I’ve taken to walking home to Outremont from the office at the end of the work day, a route that takes me from the heart of downtown through the campus of McGill University, the Molson Stadium where the Montreal Alouettes play, and Parc Mont Royal, thence to quiet and – I was going to say stately, but that’s not quite right; instead: pleasantly tidy and well-run Outremont. It takes about an hour in total, walking briskly. It gives you a chance to think back on your day – and how far you are from tiny little woodpecker-rattled Queensborough.

And how both places are just utterly splendid. And how lucky you and your husband are to be able to spend time in both.