Tarting up a grey day

I’ve always maintained that in Nova Scotia, February is the longest month but not too long ago March was known as hungry March, long-legged March (starve-gutted April and up May hill) and the storm we just had was called a “lambkiller”.

I had forgotten the long wet fall that lasted well into January, after yet another dumping of snow and freezing rain.  We’re into March and after a false start on spring winter came back with a vengeance.  So another spell of blustery white days and tottering snowbanks is due.  Back in the fall it was all grey and damp days.  There seems no shortage of monochromatic seasons here so I take you back in time to last November.

It was a cold, grey and wet day in a cold, grey wet fall.  I was getting shack whacky from the constant drumming of rain.  I bundled up the offspring and headed for the beach with the cameras.  When we got there though I realised the last thing I wanted was a bunch of depressing damp grey photos.  I mean sure ‘mood’ and ‘texture’ and blah blah blah, but I was trying to escape the weather, not capture it.  So I opened up the menus and set my camera’s vivid colour setting to ‘ridiculous’ and the digital filter to ‘such-high-contrast-it-hurts’. Some of the results can be seen below.  I considered the results a balm to the boring greys of fall and whites of winter.

2014-11-01 16.54.13Of course since my daughter didn’t have appropriate gear for the weather I got to offer her a garish combination of blue and orange, which was dutifully accentuated by the filters!

The trees and foliage looked almost alien after the treatment.


There’s snow business like winter photography…

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of photos in the winter. Everything takes on a black and white tone, complexity gets hidden beneath the white stuff, stark contrasts are everywhere. It appeals to my desire for simplification.  It’s great, evocative material.


This has long been one of my favourites. I would look at it and couldn’t really understand WHY I liked it. It seemed an emotional reaction, a reminder of winter walks and frozen ponds. One of those memory joggers that depends on the person and their experience. So I was surprised when it was also one of the first photo’s I ever sold, to another artist.

Heading Home Through the Storm

This comes from when I still shot with slide film,  My girlfriend at the time lived back a dirt road just before a bridge with a steep hill on the opposite side. One night as it was snowing I was lucky enough to catch a car as it carefully made its way along. To me this has often epitomized winter in Canada. The slow drive home in the dark during a storm.


Even crumbling old bridges in Pictou County take on an appealing look in the winter, in black and white.

NA-98-Merrett-bobcatThen there is the wildlife. This shot is from the bobcat cage at the wildlife park near Shubenacadie.  She was posing for me just as the snow started falling.

Of course the chances of seeing such things in the wild are pretty slim unless your job or passion takes you quietly into the woods for long periods of time.   But they are always out there in the imagination.  Nature living its parallel life outside the Internet, central heating and 24-hour grocery stores.


A cave filled with icicles on the drive back from Wentworth (another classic winter activity in Nova Scotia).  Finding these lost worlds in the close-up is always a thrill.  The exotic existing under our very noses.

arctic fence

The backyard when I lived in Debert and the fence between us and a large field.  Normally filled with cattle in the summer, here it looks much more like some abandoned feature in the arctic.


Finally some pictures from this winter, frost on the windows (always different, always interesting) and the field next to our home in Upper Northfield. Once again a cow pasture during its time off.

2014-01-19 08.31.20_v1

Nova Scotias’ Doctor Lottery – Part 1

There was an under-reported competition held in the Bridgewater area last September (check this link for background [After 4 years the link has expired]).  Basically there’s a new doctor in town.

I had moved back to the south shore 5 years ago and had not been able to get a family doctor. So anytime a new one shows up on the South Shore is good news.  The last time they ran a phone line you had to call to get a family doctor. The moment the line “opened” the recording said they had taken in all they could.  Obviously in that case some people knew some people. So they had another go with the new doctor, fresh out of Dal.  My cynical eye was open, but hope springs eternal.  We tested the phone number a couple of times leading up to the event, just in case.  The recording was quite strict, only opens at 6:30 pm on the day, only folks currently without a family doctor.  Not for people who don’t like their current doctor and want to switch, etc. At 6:30 what I assume was 1 operator answered the phone number. The line lasted 3 hours before it shut down. There were 150 patient slots open for people who didn’t have a family doctor on Nova Scotia’s beautiful South Shore. My wife started at exactly 6:30, and would redial after getting a busy signal. It worked out to about once every 5 seconds.  A total of 2,160 attempts. She never got through… How many people do you think were hammering away, some no doubt more desperately than us, to prevent our over 2,000 attempted phone calls from getting through?  Is this really the way to run our health-care system?  We’ve all heard how hard the government’s working to address the problem, but so far it hasn’t born fruit here.

It turns out there are a few good reasons for this.  We are told we have more doctors per capita than any other province in Canada,  yet the Canadian Medical Associations own statistics show some other interesting things as well.  They have followed what they call the “interprovincial migration” of doctors.  How many come to the various provinces and how many leave.  In 23 years we have had a net loss of 171 physicians.  If you look to the breakdown it paints a familiar picture, the maritime provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the North lose to BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

Graphically it looks like this.  Any year where a province gained more doctors than lost, it’s a peak above 0.  Lose doctors and it’s a valley.  See all those hills in the back where the western provinces are?  They might as well be the Rockies because that’s where the doctors went.

Interprov doc migration

The Excuse of Optimism!


I’m a very optimistic person by default. I perpetually arrive late for things because I assume nothing will go wrong between waking up and arriving at the function. Very occasionally I get away with it and that reinforces my behavior for the next decade. Usually it means I run somewhere between 10 and 30 minutes late. My feelings about summer stretch this to the limit. When fall arrives I go into an optimistic denial.

“Those trees are just diseased.  We should cut them down for firewood.” is my usual response when my wife points out the changing colours.

But as the number of “diseased” trees grows it becomes harder to deny.  The change is upon us.  The clockwork of our orbit turns again and we start our plummet back into winter.

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with winter.  It defines us in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we all enjoy the lead up to it.  It generally means 2 or 3 months of cold rain and wind, short days and flu season.  But the fall colours are a special show nature puts on and a nice change at this time of year (I’m writing during a cold snap in January).

For our fall show we headed out to a nearby national park.  Kejimkujik is centered around its namesake lake and has been a hub for hunting, fishing and travel for most of the time humans have been around it.  As a park it enjoys protection and has been allowed to revert somewhat back to the state it enjoyed for many hundreds of years.  It is here that this years show was appreciated by me and my family, a nice burst of fall colour on this cold January day.

Writing as an Expression of Insanity

It’s been awhile since I wrote. Or practised photography with focus and determination. And yet they remain, the voices in the background muttering away like toothless old men. A year ago I started a writing course online, it was interesting and I was quite invested. Then life happened, the demands exceeded the time I had to easily give up and it drifted away. But the first assignment, which I’m shamelessly reproducing here, was to describe the writer in me. So although his voice seems rarely heard, I’ll share the tale and throw in a descriptive photo as well.

Wishing the snow away...

Wishing the snow away…

Writing has always been in the background, not something I’ve ever questioned. Often I put more effort into thinking about writing than doing it. Even the assignment ended up stewing in the back of my mind. But since this is about me “the writer” I will start at the beginning.
Picture a young boy, pounding out dreadful science fiction on his parents manual typewriter. He couldn’t type too fast or the keys would jam. He always ended up getting ink on his fingers and any changes meant the whole page had to be retyped.
The boy remembers the excitement of his first word processor. You could just change a line and print? Typing and retyping are all parts of writing, but at its heart it serves a basic need to communicate, to share and expose your thoughts and dreams to others.
After many years in very technical, scientific and exact fields where words had to be precise, unequivocal and not subject to misunderstanding, I wanted something simpler and more personal. Ironically, although the vast majority of my writing has been technical my memory is fickle and is in constant need of checking. Perhaps that is why I love creative writing. Some of my most creative work has come from getting something I remembered completely and utterly wrong. I have a copper-tube memory; apple juice in, cider out, or vinegar if I’m having a bad day.
But to talk about the earliest years of the closet science-fiction writer means examining the youth who was trying to understand himself. Writing was an engine of discovery, finding the hero or the villain within, the twists of a technological advance, the ramifications of alien life. It was a way to explore the world without actually, you know, getting dirty or learning how to become an astronaut.
But of course that wasn’t the only writing I did. I remember the junior high years as being filled with me actively avoiding and being attracted to the opposite sex. Scribblers were filled with encounters that were greatly exaggerated or entirely fictional! This was my second encounter with fiction, sort of the soft-porn crypto-autobiographical encounters of a parallel universe me.
Years later I came across those same scribblers and discovered that puberty is best left alone once you’ve passed through it. They were destroyed, thankfully never read by another human being. But that is the paradox of writing. We make marks understood by those around us that would, if not mistreated, easily outlive us. But those scribblers were intensely personal. Just as diaries around the world have always been someones internal voice. Sometimes the intended audience is only one.
Once I got to university my writing became dedicated to the technical, the scientific. I had a thesis to complete, papers to write. The writing style was very dry but my adviser was someone who insisted that the text should be easy to read. He hated the passive voice and put that prejudice into all of us. We didn’t have dialogue or interesting changes in point-of-view, this was still science after all. Descriptive, researched and detailed but fortunately, not passive.
I was writing creatively also. Short-form poetry that was only marginally better than the science fiction of my teens and short philosophical pages that remind me now of blog entries before blogs were invented. I also wanted to be one of those people who kept a daily journal. I didn’t want to write in it all the time, but the idea appealed to me. Eventually I came to an uncomfortable truce with the fact that I wasn’t going to write in my journal every day. It was going to only be exercised when I was travelling. Like taking pictures, a mental snapshot of where my head was during the journey.
It did lead to my peculiar fetish involving pens and notebooks. I LOVE notebooks, especially the little black Moleskines with the elastic built-in to hold it together. And a pen, especially one of just the right heft and having just the correct flow of ink. It is ironic because having always been involved with computers, I could type faster than I could write longhand from a very early age. The pounding away on the manual typewriter had given me the basic muscles which were tempered on a variety of cheap chicklet keyboards from early ‘80’s home computers. One of the most helpful tools I ever developed was knowing the keyboard as an extension of my hands.
Of course, rather than pounding out those sci-fi epics I suppose I could have taken a typing course, but I’ve never learned well in that sort of environment. If I’m going to learn how to type, I want what I am typing to be meaningful. No little jumping red foxes allowed. I still collect notebooks and pens and the scribbler-period was strictly handwritten. For all the necessity and convenience of a keyboard the pen still pulls out the most personal writing.
In recent years I discovered blogging and photography. Both have had their ups and downs in output but they have become woven together in my writing. The words add to the photograph and the picture speaks the story.
Of course they can also lie to one another, lead the reader astray or in unexpected directions. I remember taking a picture of a wire-fence in the back yard, low to the ground and silhouetted against a red sunset sky. I liked the lines and the colours and it was with that in my head that I took the shot. Once I had the picture on my computer screen though I saw a war zone. Blood red colours and the tangle of wire fences, from the perspective of a dying soldier watching his last sunset. Once removed from the original context the picture took on a life of its own. Just add the words.