#6 Walking In His Footsteps

June 8, 2010

One of Hugh’s and my first conversation, the day after we met contra dancing, as about my grandmother Ganny. I had asked him “Who’s one of the most influential persons in your life?” The answer to my own question was Ganny and all that she taught me. Were she still alive, she would love Hugh. She loved the outdoors and nature. She was a Girl Scout troop leader for years, and involved in the Girl Scouts for decades. She was the consummate water conserver and recycler – recycling glass, plastic and paper in the 1970s. And she instilled that same appreciation of nature in me.

I have fond remembrances of spending summer days with her walking through creeks while learning about rocks and salamanders and fish. The window of her TV room looked onto the back yard and numerous bird feeders, which she filled daily year round. We’d sit there with bird books in hand identifying the local residents and visitors. To this day, thirty years later, I still have that bird book.

One of the best ways to learn about Shelter Island and about being a steward here is to walk in Hugh’s footsteps. He has an incredible appreciation for the impact upon the island of everything he does. When you walk in Hugh’s footsteps and pay attention to what he does you learn many things.

A walk with him is not a tromp through the woods. When you look where to step next, following Hugh’s footsteps, you notice that it is on the bare rock, rather than carelessly stepping anywhere. Particularly he doesn’t step on anything alive, if possible. Dirt is walked upon gently, avoiding any delicate plants for each season has new gems to behold. What may not have been there yesterday or last week may have something there today.

He is considerate of rocks even. While walking down a intentional path, along the rocky shoreline or off trail Hugh will turn back over any rocks that he finds that have been turned over. They may have been inadvertently turned over by someone’s foot or by the bear on its ant search.

There are lots of neat rocks to examine and appreciate. “Oooh, look at that rock!”

“Yup, it’s a good one.” He agrees as we pick one up to ogle over.

“Do you want to keep it?” I inquire, knowing full well he probably doesn’t, as there are many more like it to be found. And I want to ask just in case this is an exception or exceptional rock in his mind.

“Nope, that’s okay.” He confirms as he places it in the same orientation as it was when we picked it up – air-side up and dirt/bug/microbe-side down. I learned quickly that he respected that the microbes and bugs liked their homes the way they were before we poked our nose through their living room window. We wouldn’t like any giant lifting off the roof of our house to “see who is home” and then randomly put the roof on edge

There are a few exceptions – rocks to be worked with, tree limbs and twigs that are obstructing the cleared walking paths and dandelions. It is acceptable to move rocks from their natural home if they are utilized in a work project. When I built my bench I used only a few small rocks to stabilize the log on the bedrock. I took the liberty to add some “decoration” by doing some tasteful stone stacking. With the rocks in the area where feet rest, I cleared specific ones and moved them bug-side down to another location.

As we walk, occasionally he will snap off a dead twig that obstructs the cut path. But if we are walking off-trail he doesn’t do any bushwhacking just to have an easy walk. With respect to the tree or bush we walk around obstacles rather than making them do our biding.

“Gotta keep ahead of them” he tells me as he decapitates a dandelion that has tried to colonize. Hugh is very conscious of what are native plants and which are invasive species. Dandelions are in the illegal immigrant category. They have an immediate death sentence upon being found. Recently we’ve realized that pulling up the plant and flower still feeds the flower enough that its puff-ball can seed and spread even though it has been uprooted. Decapitation followed by being uprooted is the protocol. There are no stays of execution.

Everything we use needs to be carried onto the island. Everything that isn’t used needs to be carried off the island. I knew that anything paper was burned in the stoves. Plastic and glass were recycled. Non-burnable and non-compostables were put in the trash can. (Since being here mid-April we’ve had only two grocery bags of trash.) We have an outhouse and composting toilet so I was surprised at first to find no compost bucket for decomposable kitchen scraps. Hugh explained to me that it could attract raccoons and mice which would be more detrimental in the long term than the benefits that rich compost for the garden would provide.

“So what do we do with the veggie scraps?”

His solution was elegant. He took the carrot and squash trimmings from me, opened the kitchen window and tossed them directly into the quickest composter around – the floor of the woods. Birds and animals find them to eat or they quickly degrade (no citrus or banana peels please). Pests aren’t attracted because of the sporadicness of the distribution of the scraps; there is not a consistent food source in one place.

“Have you ever thought about having a worm bin?”

Yes, he had thought of it but nixed the idea for two reasons – one the worms would freeze in the winter, as he had yet to spend an entire winter on the island. And two, earthworms are not native to North America. This was news to me. Apparently they originally came from Europe. There is very little topsoil on Shelter Island or Drummond Island due to the  massive rock we live on. If you were to go digging, you’d be hard pressed to find your typical earthworm. He doesn’t want to introduce anything that is not native and upset the ecological balance. So we just toss compostable scraps out the kitchen window or off the porch and let the birds and squirrels enjoy.


About juliemckaycovert

I am a therapist, teacher, photographer and published author. I am a lover of life and nature. My husband, Hugh, and I live off the grid on a remote 40 acre island, Shelter Island, just off of Drummond Island in the far eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This blog is about my life, a life I thought I'd never be able to live. This blog is about dreams and ideals being manifested. It is about daily events with a backwoods twist. It is about the simple pleasures and wonders being brought forth. I invite you to be inspired and even, as some friends have, live vicariously through my words.
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