On Foraging, Free Folk, and Cranberries

A couple of weeks back, Sara and I went foraging for cranberries. Cranberries grow wild all over Cape Breton—particularly in boggy/wet/moist places on and around cliffs beside the ocean. So picking cranberries can be a rather picturesque activity, especially if the weather’s warm like it was when we went picking. I ended up picking a full bag of berries—probably at least a couple of pounds worth. And there’s plenty more out there.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about foraging, about gardening and living simply and sustainably, about how to best go about having a big life while making little money. When I quit my (shitty) job back in July, a lot of people asked me, in a kinda panicked way, “But, what will you do?” as if working a job is all one can do. Then one day I bumped into a former colleague and before I could even explain to her what I’d be doing post-shitty job, she simply said, “you’re a writer.” And I was all, omg! I am! Writing may not make me a tonne of money, but it does make me happy, and being happy is a hell of a lot more important that working a misery-inducing but well-paying job.

It’s not something a lot of people think. Even though everyone wants to be happy (I mean, no one would say, hey, I’d rather be unhappy), most people work far too much, give too much to their jobs, and neglect the parts of their life that are meaningful and non-job, that actually make them happy (i.e., family, community, exercise). Lots of people know they’re too busy, and yet, no one does anything to slow down, simplify, and be happy. Sadly, most people would rather have money than time, and believe that a steady pay cheque and full time job are the keys to happiness. But, guess what? They’re not and our communities, and health, are suffering.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s super scary to quit a job, especially when there’s bills to pay and mouths to feed. But what if there was a way to pay those bills without selling your soul to a lousy job? What if we fed those mouths with the food we grow ourselves, in our own backyards, or with food we find, growing wild and ripe for the picking, just in our neighbourhoods?

I’ve been gardening since 2007, but this year was the first time I transitioned from hobby, part-time gardener to full-time urban homesteader. I’ve been reading a lot of books about (garden) season extension, permaculture, foraging, and transforming from a household of consumption to production. I now grow almost all my own vegetables, and, next spring, I hope to get some chickens and produce my own protein (eggs!). For food I can’t grow or source locally, I try, as often as I can, to source ethically. I barely go to the grocery store these days, except to buy dairy. We’ve even been thinking about growing grains to make beer and bread, but we’ll see how we do with the chickens first.

This is how I want to live my life: as simply, sustainably, resiliently, and cheaply as possible. I’ve paid off my debts and dug up the grass in my backyard to make room for a garden. I’ve stopped buying things and am getting rid of stuff. Living this way isn’t hard, but it takes time and energy. And the time and energy I spend to live simply, is, by far, the best, most rewarding time.

I really believe that anyone can live this way. Whether you live in the country or the city, there are ways to be more productive and less consumptive. When our society wants us to buy more, perhaps it’s better to buy less and make more.

‘Cause I’m a writer, I’m going to write about this. I want to show people it’s easy to live this way. We now live in a post-employment economy—while living simply is, right now, a choice, it may, very soon, become a necessity. Instead of panicking and thinking, what will I do? if you lose or quit your job, you can, instead, think, confidently, this is what I will do. I will live simply.

In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the Free Folk (or, Wildlings) are the people who live north of the Wall. They differentiate themselves from “kneelers”—people beholden to a king they do not choose. The Free Folk kneel to no king, women fight alongside men in battle and are treated as equals, and they believe the earth and everything on it should be shared equally among all people. It’s what I like to refer to myself these days—as a free folk, someone who kneels to no one. Just, I’ll probably live with a few more amenities than Martin’s Free Folk, and hopefully there’s no ice zombie Others coming at us (unless you liken the Others to climate change, but, that’s a whole other post).

What’s all this have to do with cranberries? Well, those cranberries I picked? They're free, folks! And cranberries are loaded with vitamin C, which is pretty important to eat in the winter. Winter is coming, as the Starks like to remind us. Time to stock up on cranberries. I’m sure the road ahead, to a simpler, happier life, will be, well, unpredictable. I’ll need all the healthy snacks I can find.

New Photos Up

Got some new photos up on my Cape Breton page.

Here's another one, just because. Taken in the woods near my house.


I live in New Waterford, on Cape Breton Island. Besides the weather, things don’t change here very often. When I first moved here four years ago, my neighbours couldn’t believe I wasn’t related to anyone in town. Why would someone from away, who had no connection to anyone in town, choose to live in New Waterford? I had a feeling I was the first non-Cape Bretoner to move here since the mines were in full operation.

The last mine in New Waterford (or, NDub, as some of us call it) closed in 2001. There’s been lots of little changes since then (businesses coming and going, families moving out west to work, abandoned houses getting burned or torn down), but what about the big changes?

Let’s take this past year (2015) as an example. So far, New Waterford’s gotten:

  • two new pharmacies (well, we already had ‘em, but now they’re in two brand new buildings)
  • a library reno and facelift
  • a town clock (though I think that went in in 2014)
  • a new fish and chip restaurant (Batter the Devil You Know)

And, that’s about it! For changes, these are pretty much on the light side of change. We already had the pharmacies and library, I’m not even sure if the clock works, and, though the fish is fresh and local and the fries are hand-cut, it’s still a restaurant that features deep-fried food—which we already have plenty of in the area (not to knock Batter—it’s really tasty and it’s so damned nice to walk to a local restaurant and not have to drive into Sydney).

Then, a couple of weeks ago, we got a new prime minister. Not just New Waterford—all of Canada.

Who knows what Trudeau will be like as PM. There’s lots of speculating happening online, but I’m happy to withhold judgement and wait and see. We had almost 10 years of tyrannical Harper; I’m super pumped to keep optimistic. As of today (Nov. 4) we have our first Gen X PM. Hmm, maybe I should start a hastag (#genxpm). How wonderful that someone young is leading our country. If youth = change, then have at ‘er, Justin.

What’s this have to do with New Waterford? Where things seldom change and the population is rather...senior? There’s an expression: shit trickles downhill. Well, I think it’s an expression. And with Harper, boy, did the shit trickle downhill. His unemotional, corporation-first agenda did a hell of a number on Canada. I really feel his way of “leading” set a precedence for how a lot of people in positions of power decided to wield that power—unbending, unemotional, harassing, abusive. From politicians to administrators to small-business managers: for the last few years, Canadians have been living in a constant state of fear. Fear of speaking up. Fear of questioning authority. Fear of change. Which is bullshit. Ruling through fear-mongering is not leadership. It’s bullying and harassing.

Now we have a new PM. He’s young. He wants to change things. We wants people to co-operate. Maybe his attitude will trickle down and cover all the shit Harper left us with. And maybe that idea of change will trickle all the way down and over Cape Breton. Here’s hoping this is a new era of change and co-operation, of working together to change things.

Summer in Cape Breton

Realized I haven't updated the site since returning from the Yukon over 4 months ago! And now it's summer in Cape Breton--a bit cool and grey this week, which is great for the garden, but makes it tough to go to the beach. Although, I've already been to Ingonish twice this spring/summer. Hoping to hit the west side of the island this year--and finally make it to Mabou!

Photo at left is of Ingonish Beach back in May--when no one was on it but me.

Yukon Readings

I'm all set to read at both the Dawson City and Whitehorse libraries this month. Leaving Dawson is going to be quite bittersweet--it'll be hard to give up all this writing and thinking time, but I'm really looking forward to being back on Cape Breton Island, enjoying the woodstove and saying "hi" to the ocean. Still, being in the north has been wonderful. I love the Yukon and can't wait to come back. Here are my reading dates!

Dawson City

Thursday, March 19, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Dawson City Community Library


Thursday, March 26, 2015
7:00 p.m.
Whitehorse Public Library

Photo of Northern Lights over Robert Service's cabin by yours truly.

Yukon Photos

I'm in Dawson City! Yippee! So far the temps have been a balmy average of -19, but I see some -30s in the forecast. 

Photo, as always, by Julien.

Upload speeds are dreadfully slow at the Berton House, but whenever I get the time, I'll be uploading Yukon photos. I'll also post a few photos to Instagram, which so far is faster and a bit more reliable. 

Happy new year!

Two Weeks till the Berton House

I'm dreaming of a White(horse) Christmas.

Photo from Wikipedia.


Hackathon Winners


Over the weekend (Oct. 18-19) I participated in Marcato Festival's first Hackathon. I complain a lot about how few women are involved in technology in Cape Breton and, well, everywhere. Then my friend Leah Noble signed up, and I got all inspired, so I signed up, too. I know a bit of code, but I want to know more, and that's exactly why I signed up. To learn, and for the experience (and, ok, maybe the free beer helped to seal the deal).

So Leah, me, and Ardell MacKinnon, who's the software developer at Pure Project Relations, formed a team ahead of time, and decided we'd build an app for the Cape Breton SPCA. We called ourselves Team LOLCats. Our skills divided up quite nicely--Ardell took the lead on programming, Leah, who's a graphic designer, made the app look good, and I wrangled the data. I got to play around with Petfinder's API and plug in an XML file to the app (an Android app, built in Java). APIs are big in librarianship right now, so I have been really wanting to learn more about them. 

The Hackathon was a competition, but we honestly weren't in it to win. So when they announced our name, we were shocked. Happy, but really surprised. Turns out we were able to build an almost complete app in 2 days, and that really impressed the judges. 

I won't go into too many details, especially since Leah wrote all about the day and our win over at her Dream Big Cape Breton blog. We were also in the Chronicle Herald, and CBC Information Morning interviewed us very early Monday morning. 

Now we have a meeting next week with the CB SPCA and the app may get out into stores and onto phones very soon!

Update: The app is now avaialble at Google Play! Curious how to look under the hood and see the code? Check it out on GitHub!

Making a Difference on Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton's CBC Mainstreet has a series called "Making a Difference," about Cape Bretoners who are doing positive things in their communities on the island. Alyce MacLean, CBC's freelance reporter, interviewed me for the series. We talked about writing in New Waterford, east coast stories, working (as a woman) in technology, and revitalizing the economy of the island by supporting local businesses. Here's the link to the interview!

CBC Interview about Alistair MacLeod

I was asked to share a couple of stories about Alistair MacLeod for CBC Cape Breton's Information Morning. The segment aired this morning (April 25) and I remembered to record it. Yup. I had a scotch with Alistair MacLeod. Here's the story!


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