Saturday, 22 August 2015

Nautical Metaphors

I must go down to the sea again

As I read the Patrick O'Brian series of novels for the third or fourth time, I am astounded at the number of nautical metaphors that have passed into our language from sailing ships and the sea. I suspect that this aspect of British history is the richest source of idiom and expression after Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

As a youth I sailed through the Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, but by and large gave lesser imitators a wide berth. Forester had left little leeway for competitors. Then I came upon Patrick O'Brian and his series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Steven Maturin, chock-a-block with nautical detail and set, like the Hornblower books, in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I was committed, hard and fast.

Master and Commander, the first in the series, was no mere flash in the pan. Eighteen more novels followed, each one meeting initial expectations with flying colours, and I continued reading them until the bitter end. Elements of the stories were often unresolved, leaving me high and dry until a new novel appeared in the offing. Nothing else would tide me over. I was left in the doldrums. Without an O'Brian book to read, I was all at sea. 

Reading has always been a mainstay of my existence, and on cold winter nights on the prairies, I would batten down the hatches, tell everybody else to pipe down, get under way, and read long into the night, sipping my scotch until I was three sheets to the wind.

I was taken aback when a seafaring friend of mine, and medical man to boot, let slip that he was making heavy weather of one of the novels. These were dangerous waters indeed, and he was sailing too close to the wind. I could not turn a blind eye. He had better take a different tack! I nailed my colours to the mast and sent a shot across his bows, telling him that I couldn't fathom his attitude and didn't like the cut of his jib. I was ready to tackle him at close quarters: there was no way he could cut and run. I told him to toe the line, to get on an even keel, to steer clear of small fry, and to strive with might and main to sound the depths of this great novel, or our friendship would go by the board. He acknowledged my signal, and from then on, it was plain sailing. We were no longer at loggerheads.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

A Scurry of Squirrels

I have finally defeated the squirrels, those defiant, ingenious, rodent-Houdinis-in-reverse. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

It began thirty years ago at a little cabin by the Roseau River in Manitoba. Our bird feeder attracted not only nuthatches and chickadees, redwing blackbirds, finches, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and other avian visitors, but also the squirrels. So I bought a squirrel-proof feeder from Costco. I don't know whether it was ever field-tested, but if so, the focus group must have been fatter or thicker for it didn't take long for one of our squirrels to squeeze through the bars of the cage. I continued to try various designs, positions and locations, but when a bear pulled the feeder down, I gave up.

Here on Mayne Island in a little log cabin half way up a cliff, we began again. Gone were the bears, mosquitoes, wood ticks and poison ivy, but the squirrels were still with us. In the beginning there was only one, and he soon leapt across to the feeder I had suspended from the side of a sloping tree next to the deck. I then tried another "squirrel-proof" feeder of ingenious design with bird perches on a spring tensioned so that birds could feed but the heavier squirrel would draw down the outer frame and close off the feed openings. For a while it worked, and then one day we saw a squirrel draped around the feeder lunching happily, somehow managing not to close access to the sunflower seeds inside.

The trouble with bird feeders is that the word gets around. In the beginning there was only one squirrel, but now we had a score or more running up and down the deck, taunting us. One in particular would not even flee when I charged at him on the feeder, brandishing a stick and uttering a war cry. He would simply retreat to the other side of the tree, clucking mockingly, and reappear when I withdrew. Fearing a repeat of our Manitoba experience, where the squirrels eventually found their way into the roof, I had to devise a new strategy. 

I banished the feeders from the deck and hung a triple-barrelled version high up between two fir trees fifty feet from the cabin. The feeder was suspended on a cord passing through a pulley attached to a wire between the trees. The process of replenishing the feeder was a bit like lowering and raising a mainsail, and we now had to use binoculars to watch the birds, but we seemed to have outwitted the squirrels.

Then one day I looked out to see the feeder swinging wildly on its line. Oh no, I thought. A squirrel must have just jumped off. I waited and watched. At dusk the next day, I noticed a couple of large dove-like birds sitting on a branch overlooking the feeder. They flew across, flapping their wings wildly, trying for a purchase on the perches. Two more arrived at the openings above them, and the four of them clung on awkwardly, embracing the feeder with their wings, hoovering up the sunflower seed within. A white stripe on the back of their heads identified them as band-tailed pigeons. Our feeder was now on their circuit, and they would appear each day for their evening meal.

But I am reluctant to feed these aerial leviathans who empty the feeder in a few days, so for the time being it hangs empty. And no birds swing.