The Quest for Shade

Gazebo: Noun

A small building, especially one in the garden of a house, that gives a wide view of the surrounding area.

The Black Gazebo

Origin

Mid 18th century perhaps humorously from gaze, in imitation of Latin future tenses ending in -ebo.

Oxford Dictionary

A screen porch isn’t a luxury—it’s an essential way to celebrate

summer weather and the outdoors.

Sarah Susanka, The Not So Big House

I have skin cancer. The first melanoma was surgically removed twelve years ago. The second one more recently. Before, between and since those times, a dozen or so less deadly cancers have been burned out, dug out, or eliminated with chemicals.

One dermatologist told me that with skin like mine—pale, freckled, and mole-dappled—I could get cancer walking across a parking lot. Her rules:

  • stay inside between 10 AM and 3 PM
  • wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, sun glasses and a wide-brimmed hat
  • cover whatever skin is exposed with sunscreen

I do most of those things. The ten to three timeline is difficult. Weeds don’t stop growing during the height the day and birds need fresh water. As to the clothing, my over-sized, floppy-rimmed, lilac hat and my short stature bring to mind a lavender toadstool.

Me in my lilac sun-hat

Seven years ago, when we decided to move to Prince Edward Island, I sought to buy a property dotted with large shade trees. At the time, none—with a suitable residence—were to be had. So, we bought more than half an acre of lawn which boasted a modern house and three struggling trees. Every year, I plant more evergreen and leaf-shedding specimens, but only now, do three or four provide a small puddle of mid-day shade.

Determined to spend more time out-of-doors, I built a pergola. A deck twelve feet square. Four posts and beams. Then, I added a sun-safe, fabric roof. Alas, for most of the day, the shadow of the covering fell outside the deck. I installed curtains. Perfect. Until the wind blew. Their shadows vanished. Actually, they danced fiercely far beyond the perimeter of the little structure. I weighted the bottoms. On windy days, my chair or I got struck by the metal rods I’d inserted into the hems. I fastened the bottoms down. The curtains ripped. No one had warned me about maritime “breezes.”

The Pergola

After two years of shade-frustration, I decided to close in the pergola. I perused sun-protected structures on the internet and chose one that I deemed my limited carpentry skills could replicate. I had only two saws, a hand saw and a Skil saw. Using the picnic table as a support, I cut eight, two-by-six studs and began to insert two of them equally between each set of corner posts. For a short while, my next-door neighbour, who has a state of the art wood-working shop, observed my labours. Then, Mike sauntered over and asked if I’d like some help. Did I look inept? Without hesitation, I swallowed my pride and accepted his offer. We levelled and fastened the uprights, then inserted additional roof beams. When it came time for the half-walls, Mike retrieved his mitre saw. I never knew that eleven stud walls, even miniature ones, could be cut and assembled in so little time!

Now that the skeleton was complete, I was on my own. I hand-sawed and attached clapboards on the outside and fence boards on the inside. Next, I read up on “flat” roofs only to discover that flat roofs are not flat. They must incline a minimum of one-quarter inch per foot in order for water to drain away. For the first time since the start of the project, I was intimidated. My son from Alberta was scheduled to visit in a few weeks. He had considerable experience building sheds and their roofs. I awaited his arrival. Tyler demonstrated how to cut the high-front to low-back angle. Best of all, he bought me an Irwin Quick-Clamp. He called it “a second hand.” (I have been so impressed by its usefulness, that I recently purchased its twin.) A few days later, when my daughter and her family from Ontario got here, my son-in-law adeptly stained the roof beams black. Mike’s wife had suggested the colour.

One of the “experts” at the construction desk of a local building supply company knew more about metal roofs than any of the internet sites I visited. I supplied him with “exact” measurements; he asked me countless specific details; then he ordered everything I needed. After the roofing materials came, I took several days to summon the courage to tackle the project. Heights scare me. Even when they are only ten feet above the ground. Sliding across the steel panels on my bum as I fastened rivets, I noticed the young couple next door eyeing me with suspicion, or perhaps with trepidation. In the end, I never fell and, with a few adjustments, all the pieces fit.

Mike provided one last service. On the table saw in his workshop, he halved several pressure-treated two-by-fours lengthwise. With these, I built frames for the screening.

Finishing details included: re-cutting the copper pergola pipes to make shorter curtain rods; repairing and hemming the tan and white striped panels to fit the new openings; purchasing an outdoor sectional at an end-of-season sale.

The end product solved my shade dilemma. The steel roof blocks all of the sun’s skin-damaging rays; half-walls provide further protection; the screens serve two purposes—they keep the throngs of biting, stinging visitors at bay and block thirty per cent of the wind’s power, thus allowing the curtains to do their part in the quest for shade.

I still have skin cancer. However, in my garden, I now also have a black gazebo.

Pitou resting in the gazebo
One of the views from inside the gazebo. The owl chair was bought for my granddaughter.

The Search for a Woodland Sanctuary

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau

Introduction

The seed for my vision of a “cabin-in-the-woods” may have been planted at Camp Keewaydin. At dusk, two dozen Girl Guides sat around a bonfire singing rounds, songs of adventure, and hand-action tunes. In the last category was this:

In a cottage in a wood
A little old man at the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at the door.

‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said
‘Before the hunter shoots me dead!’
‘Come little rabbit, stay with me,
Happy you shall be.’

(Repeat)

Each repetition omitted the words of the previous line. On the ninth iteration, silence prevailed while twenty-four pairs of raised hands drew cottages and window frames, knocked on imaginary doors and mimicked the hopping of rabbits and the firing of shotguns. But, you had to be singing in your head to get the right sequence of actions. What pedagogical genius condemned rote learning? A septuagenarian now, I remember not only the melody and the words, but also the hand actions. Until today, copying the song, I never noticed the change in person—third to first. But, until today, I had never written down the words. And what importance does grammatical consistency have for an eleven-year-old? What intrigued me was the concept of a refuge in a woods. I found one—twice.

The Oxley Cottage

Near the western terminus of stagecoach route that traced the north shore of Lake Erie, reposed an inn, ancient and weather-beaten. Six equally time-worn cottages lounged among the hundreds of mature maples that dotted the grounds.

For three months in the spring of my twenty-sixth year, my husband and I inhabited one of the sextet of tiny cabins. We had purchased our first house, a two-bedroom bungalow, a year and a half earlier. Soon we tired of its mediocrity and boxy newness. A stately, red-brick Victorian, complete with a two-story turret, came on the market. In short order, we bought the property and sold ours; however, the closing dates did not correspond. We needed to vacate the bungalow almost at once.

The good-hearted, elderly owners of the 1865 former manse, agreed to store our belongings for a few months. Somehow, we discovered the Ravine Cottages. It was the low season and only one other was rented out.

Our cabin consisted of one large room. Across the back wall, a small fridge, sink, and stove perched in a crooked row. To their right, a three-piece washroom—pedestal sink, toilet and shower—functioned without pretense. An unpainted wooden table and four chairs occupied the middle ground. At the front of the room, side by side and facing the water, were a sitting area and a sleeping space. A double bed had been wedged into the rectangle created by the back wall of the bathroom and two walls of the cottage—a three-sided cage. I slept on the inside—a bonus when I wanted to open or close the window. Inconvenient for nighttime trips to the toilet. Large paired windows graced each side of a central door. A screened porch completed the plan. I first viewed the bug-safe enclosure as a welcome luxury. In May, when legions of shad-flies coated the world with their fragile living, dying, and decomposing bodies, I realized the necessity of the protected space.

For our only neighbours, a young New Zealand couple, the Ravine Cottages was the latest stop on their west-to-east cross-Canada journey. In their cabin, pressed against a wall, squatted a small dresser blackened with age. The checkered shellac surface and a large dark ring seared into the top didn’t diminish its inherent beauty. I asked the proprietress if she would exchange the piece for one of our light-oak washstands. Although she made it a policy not to sell any of the inn’s original furnishings, she deemed a trade acceptable.

Once at our cottage, a closer examination revealed the value of the dark little cabinet—black walnut construction with burled walnut inlays, hand-forged nails and abstract flower petals carved into the back rail. I felt guilty about the exchange and spoke to the owner. She beamed at me, “What a fantastic swap! The oak piece is far too nice to leave in a cottage so we brought it into the hotel!” My conscience was appeased.

During those months in the Oxley cottage, I enjoyed the freedom of few possessions—some clothes, toiletries, and books—and the ease of keeping such a small space clean. I taught only in the morning. During the unhurried afternoons I ambled among rivers of discarded leaves, inhaled their musty perfume as I disturbed their evolution; listened to cheerful melodies of tiny songbirds; watched fat grey squirrels and curious chipmunks scamper among the spring-ripening forest. When troubled thoughts crowded my mind and obliterated the peace of the natural sanctuary, a protruding root, a noisy sparrow or an unexpected fragrance pulled me back to the present and restored my equanimity.

The Don Street Shack

Twenty-four years later, I relocated to a small town cradled on the shore of Georgian Bay. There I discovered a second “cabin-in-the-woods.” The tiny shack, abandoned for years, huddled among half an acre of mature maples and pines. The weathered clapboards had never seen paint and most of the green had deserted the rotting wooden shutters. Sealed tight, the blinded house prevented my peering in. Even so, I envisioned “saving” the neglected gem. My recent divorce and part-time work dictated that the salvation would have to wait.

Two years passed. On summer’s first Friday, I signed a permanent teaching contract. Next, I drove by the Don Street cabin. Braked. Stared at the charming vinyl-clad home that stood tall in the place where the shack had once crouched. A local builder, who had taken on the renovation as a hobby, had done a remarkable job. Better even than I had envisioned. The addition of a wrap-around veranda was pure genius. Best of all, in the front yard, on a sturdy square post, swung a large white, red, and blue sign—FOR SALE. On Monday, I officially owned the house. I loved it for fourteen years.

Why did I move? First, the neighbour to the west added a two-story addition. It obscured the view of the bay. Second, the builder who refurbished my home owned the two wooded lots adjoining it. He fancied the area so much that he cleared the forest on the east side and built a house for him and his family. That land was elevated. When he put in the swimming pool, his children and their friends had an unimpeded view into our once secluded backyard. Then, the same contractor sold the large treed acreage behind our two properties—a tract with a brook winding through it where I frequently roamed. A retired couple built a sizable house on the land then created a sizable number of vegetable gardens that abutted our fence. My forest refuge shrank to a small island in a sea of domiciles.

The renovated Don Street shack

Prince Edward Island

The property we bought six years ago is not a cabin-in-the-woods. It is a multi-level, modern dwelling situated on more than half an acre of lawn. However, every spring I plant trees. More than thirty to date. In the future, not in my life-time though, towering blue spruces, Austrian and red pines, maples, and lindens will protect the house from searing sun and icy gales. Whoever comes to dwell here will revel in their own private woodland sanctuary.

Some of the trees I have planted–spruces and a weeping crab-apple
One of four ornamental pears that I planted four years ago.
An hydrangea standard that was badly damaged in a hurricane and another ornamental pear.
Four new blue spruces planted on the berm this spring

When Dealing with a Skunk, Attitude is Everything

Mother Skunk on a daytime grass-collection mission

Skunk moved into the earthy apartment underneath our garden shed. The space had previously been occupied by an extended family of mice followed closely by Rat. No morally acceptable method that I used convinced the most recent tenant to relocate.

Earlier, I had concocted rat deterrents using hardware cloth—a metal grid used for a myriad of DIY projects. I folded 12” square pieces of the mesh accordion style and clipped the squares in several places to create rat-dangerous miniature spikes. I soaked rags in peppermint oil, which rodents are supposed to find disagreeable, stuffed them into the folds and placed five of the contraptions around the shed. Voila! No more Rat.

Shortly after Rat failed to put in an appearance, I espied an extremely large entry hole leading under the shed. The little metal accordion in that location had been pushed off to one side. Did Rat mutate? Did the essential oil create Super Rat? I waited. And watched. Transformed Rat appeared–much much larger, much much hairier and its dull grey coat had changed to a glossy black and white. I phoned the wildlife control officer.

Hundreds of dollars to set a trap for Skunk. More to come and re-bait it. More to dig a trench and install a rodent barrier—guaranteed for ten years against skunks and raccoons, not against rats or mice.

For almost two weeks, the spring pandemic prevented the officer’s arrival. For several days, Skunk had not been seen. When Mister Wildlife got here, I thanked him but said his services were no longer required. He explained that Skunk had two or three homes and would probably be back. I would take my chances.

One afternoon I spotted Rat, or one of his relatives, entering the large hole. Had the peppermint oil evaporated? Had Skunk permanently vacated the lair? Were the two creatures cohabiting? The next morning, when I went to to the shed to retrieve my gardening tools, a repugnant odour assaulted me. Fresh skunk-stench. Did Skunk return and evict Rat? How grateful I was to have kept my hole-digging, rat-hunting terrier far from the building.

I took no further steps to deal with the problem. Difficulties are created in the mind. not in the circumstances. If I perceived Skunk as a fellow sentient creature who wanted nothing but to be left alone, rather than as a mortal enemy, we could peacefully co-exist. Every day when I passed her entrance, I called out, “Hello, Mother Skunk. I trust you will enjoy your day. If your babies have arrived, keep them safe.” Then, I tied open the shed doors, and wandered in and out of the little barn as often as necessary.

Three weeks have passed. Never, by sight or smell, has Skunk showed herself again. She may have decided that there was simply too much traffic near this particular home and retired to a quieter den.

Rat too has disappeared. Although Mister Wildlife said that once we had critters under the shed, we would always have critters, I am content to bide my time and be grateful that, just now, the apartment is vacant.

Postscript

After writing this piece, I consulted the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s article on skunks. Apparently they don’t mind music but are threatened by the sound of human voices. My good morning ritual might have been what actually drove her away.

What a great tail on Mother Skunk!