As a Man Sows: Spring Planting, Prices, and the Birth of Monoculture on PEI

It is now common to read statementslike “Modern industrial agriculture is a disastrous failure, as it defies practically every natural law related to food cultivation, ecological and environmental protection and stewardship, and human nutrition.”  But if this is true when did it begin, and why did new settlers decide to farm in this way?  On this the last day of Spring, Real Time Farming looks back on the planting and other spring activities on nineteenth century farms like John MacEachern’s.

Spring planting: Prince Edward Island Potatoes
Photo: Josh MacFadyen

The earliest farmers in Atlantic Canada raised crops and livestock by maximizing the natural productivity of salt marshes.  Wetland drainage was still a human disturbance, but at least it required limited deforestation.  As population and farm settlement expanded the salt marshes represented only a fraction of the necessary caloric production, and farming became much more intrusive.

Since then, the farmer’s work has been to kill off, uproot, and fence out all of the biodiversity from an acre of land, and to plant and cultivate a single crop in its place.  The old family farm might seem to us a distant sentinel of a lost way of life, but they were hardly timeless and uniform.  Like all institutions that manufactured goods farms were dynamic systems and businesses, too.  Decisions were based on complex variables such as climate, prices and markets, the availability of labour, community growth and decline, and changes in local diets and consumer demand.  As petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides became available they began to replace locally available soil treatments such as manure and mussel mud.

A progressively complex and experimental style of farming is visible in the diary of John MacEachern, who settled a farm in Rice Point in the mid 19th century. In the cold wet spring of 1866 MacEachern planted wheat, oats, clover, potatoes and a small amount of flax seed.  Other work included building fences at home and markets in Charlottetown.  The mare gave birth to a foal and the sheep were sheared for their wool.

In 1879, the spring activities in Rice Point were much more diverse.  The sheep produced another coat for the shearer in June, and John’s neighbours, Doug and Jane MacDonald, processed all or part of the wool.  Pork was butchered for urban markets, fish were harvested from multiple locations, and MacEachern’s sons were busy with heavy work such as picking rock, hauling mussel mud and pulverising, planting, and rolling the new crops.

Spring Planting: PEI
Photo: Josh MacFadyen

The crop selection was extremely diverse and reflected an ability to experiment with different plant varieties and methods of cultivation.  Simple pulverising was replaced with “cross plowing,” harrowing, and pulverising crops before and after planting.  Crop diversity increased, and even the grass seed used for hay included ¾ lb each of Alsac, Dutch, and Red & White i.c., as well as “some Eng Red & White and ½ bushel Timothy.” Hay was a critically important crop for farms interested in increasing their ability to carry herds of cattle and sheep safely through the winter.

Other work in 1879 included fencing, cleaning seed, and cutting and burning “bushes” along the margins of the farm.  These bushes were likely self-seeding conifers from the hedgerows and suckers growing on the stumps of cleared land.

A more interesting picture of the MacEachern’s farm landscape emerges in 1879, as John begins to think of his fields according to their locations and uses.   The “bushes” and “new land” were located at the back of the lot and “outside of back fence,” and presumably the “new field” was either the same space or a field nearby.  The “middle field” was on the water side of the house and had recently been lea, or pasture, and it was being pulverised and seeded to grass again in 1879.

Grass and oats fed the animals on this busy farm, and animals were essential for producing the potatoes, firewood, pork, and wool necessary to keep the MacEachern’s engaged in urban markets.  Trips to “Town” were an important part of life in both the 1860s and 1870s, and the farmers made the journey both as producers and consumers.  The city was the nexus for information and trade, and the most visible trend in the farm’s development was the increasing complexity of its market relationships.  As MacEachern’s children came of age and became more available for farm labour, the extent of clearing, the complexity of cultivation, and the range of marketable products increased in turn.

Rice Point, PEI

May 1866

9, I went to Town for clover seed. Heavy rain.

14, I sowed wheat, five bushels

15 sowed 4 bushels of oats

16 sowed clover seed, 10 lb in 4 acres. Sowed 3.5 bushels oats on the upper turn hill and 2 lb red & white clover seed.

17. Rain showers and cold. This day 36 years ago we landed in Ch-Town the woods were green, no leaves yet. Dry now a week.

18 Sowing oats in lay land in swamp field at night mare foaled, 4 days less than a year.

19, Raining. Good fishing last week at Canoe Cove, slack at Nine Mile Creek.

24, Fine. Showry & finished sowing oats in swamp field, 15.5 bushels in 4.5 acres

25, Fine, Sheared the sheep & planted potatoes

26, Doug to mill with wheat

29 In the morning rain cleared up, I walked to ferry , to Town to Mr C W Rights

30, Overcast and raining, we planted potatoes

31 Fair, we planting potatoes, raw and cold this month.

June 1866

1, Fine, Doug and I to Town

3, Sab. Meeting in Canoe Cove

4, Sunny, the woods scarcely in leaf till this month

5, Rainy, we trucking poles to shore fence, sowed flax seed yesterday 1.5 pecks in the 1/8 of an acre

6, gloomy but mild, putting up shore fence

7, Telegraph dispatch from Canada on Sat eve last that Fenians from the Yankee’s side had encamped there…

Rice Point, PEI

May 1879

1 Thunder and a shower

2, Raw, I to Town by (Ftr, Ltr, Wr?) put note in bank, sent a letter to Cousin McFlet. & remins.

3, Warm, finished pulverising two ridges new land left in the fall

5 morning red, rain after breakfast boys went to haul mussel mud

6, foggy, Doug to Town R Ts, Potatoes 45 cents, I sifting wheat

7, misty, D & L hauling mud, Neil pulverising lea

8, I sowing wheat, 10.5 bushels below R.W.

9, Sowing Canadian clover, Alsac, Tim (Boston) on West side

10, I to Town for Eng. Clover & Alsac at Beer Brothers & Tim. & White to at Sellar’s. In the evening sowed Do in wheat, East side of field

13, I & Ln to Town, I across West River to J.W. Crosby’s

14, Hot, Neil finished planting Goodriches & Blue in lea land, middle field, below house, 4.5 acres.

15, Windy, Doug at field NW of house, oats 42 bu in 9.5-10 acres. Part pulverised before, and part after sowing.

16, I to Town paid Conr Bk by Cash from Cn day.

17, S. To W. Cloudy, N hauling potatoes & Lauchlin rolling oat field.

18, Sab. Minister Goodwill in C. C. Church.

19, Misty. 49 yeares today since we landed in Ch-Town out of the Brig “Corsair of Greenock,” passage about 45 days from port to port, the trees here were in full leaf, not so very early since.

20, Rained some last night. N.E. Misty, Neil plowing W Brookfield. E Side Doug sowed on Sat 13 Bushels. Evening, Minister in T. House, Text Galations 6: 7-10, an excellent sermon.

21 hauling stones off, near new land. Evening a heavy shower. Minister to Rocky Pt. Woods turning green now.

22 N. Cold. Sowed near back field, about 11 bushels. Evening cold and windy. Froze.

23 Ice on water at well. Doug & Christy to Town, took carcass of pork. I sowed near new field. Oats. Neil and Ln carting off stones. P. Aunt Julia came through woods.

24, NE. Blowy and cold, harrowing couch in lower W. Field for potatoes. Evening, Ln to Lobster Factory.

26, I sowing grass seeds in near Glenfield (Alsac ¾ lb, Red & White i.c., Dutch ¾, some Eng red & White and ½ bushel Tim.). Rained PM fair, Neil at couch pulverizing, Doug harrowing grass seed.

27 AM W. Windy and cold and for some days past, very backward for vegetation, stormy for fishing, a thin skim of ice early

28 W. Windy, N&D finished cross plowing for potatoes, lower W field, dry. I burning trimmed bushes outside of back fence.

29 Hot & dry, PM rolling oats in new land & c.

30 AM calm, read Ezek Ch 16, Doug & Neil carting manure to lower W. Field, PM windy, much smoke from W. Dry.

31, W. Breezy & dry for some time, John McRae here helping to fill manure, day smoky & dry, hauled over 50 carts to K.

June 1879

1, Sab. Dry. Douglas the Bible C. Agent in Mg.

2, rained heavy before and after day break, much needed for crop & grass, cleared, D&N hauling M. Still from yard.

3, NE overcast, sent a letter to brother Neil in Buctouche h & one to Chas. Widow in Fredericton NB, we spreading manure for potatoes

4, AM some rain we began planting potatoes in lower W. Fields, some Pern on E. Then ten bushels Pr. Acre afterwards.  Perusi & a drill or two Comptons, and a few Brooks, and some Scotch Victorias in two places, and 8 bushels rose potatoes.

5, at potatoes

6, at potatoes

7, a gale. We finished planting as above

8, Sab. A hail shower at day break, day cool

10, hot, Doug & Jane McDonald shearing our sheep, 36 sheep 14 lambs, 3 not altered.

11, J. McDonald washing wool

12, SE, Neil hauling poles across the brook for pasture. I levelling road, Doug at Donald’s at mud frolick

13, … heard that Lowther was writted for Oct. Court expences


May Flowers, Flat Fish, and other “Lovely Visions of Spring”: April on the Bain Farm

While other farmers readied the plow and burnt brush on new clearings, Francis Bain spent most of his April days in the woods and on the shore writing about the first migratory bird sightings. Today we usually think of nature observation as an activity for public space, but Bain would not have understood the delineations between public land and the rest of nature. This man had full range of his environment, going out in every direction at every time of day.  When he heard a bird he “went in pursuit of him.” There is never a sense in the journals that the landscape was too crowded to wander or too limited for wildlife, even though York Point was being extensively cleared and resettled for agriculture.

Most of these spring observations were made on his own property, although on the 16th he walked to “the Indian camps in a glade in the woods,” which was presumably at Rocky Point, across the West River from his home. He notes several familiar places on his property, including “the cove,” “the maple grove near the swamp,” “the poplars at our window,” “the orchard,” the “garden walks,” the “crops,” the “back place” (a site which they stumped in July 1879), and “the mussel bed” with its “excavations” made from digging mussel mud and other sea manures.

A view of the modern day landscape at the Bain Property, York Point, PEI


York Point, Prince Edward Island — Francis Bain

May 1, The weather is now turned beautifully warm and summer-like. The Gulf is said to be clear of ice and summer’s glad smile has suddenly burst in beauty on the broken reign of winter.  A thunder cloud spread its dark mass up from the south western sky this afternoon and drenched the fields with heavy pours of rain. The grass is greener one day after.

May flowers are in bloom. How marvelous that chemistry which converts the first flashes of summer light into such wondrous sweetness of fragrance and of bloom. The Wood Robin is singing his plaintive melody, and the Linnet laughing half his song. The Golden Wood Pecker calls loudly for his mate or raps the hollow ramphole and the blue-finch and chip sparrow give quiet ditties from the hedge and meadow. Frogs are in full blast at night.

April 24, A strong cold, icy wind from the north, scattering squalls of snow at interval is retarding the advance of spring to day. The sky is dark and angry and the newly released waves lashed into fury by the strong wind.

The singing of the birds is nearly hushed to day; even the crows scarcely caw. Small flocks of geese sweep fast born on the wild wing of the storm.

I observe that nearly all of the smaller stones on the shore, lying at a short distance from the bank, are reduced by the action of the winter’s frost. This is much more than could have been accomplished in the same period by the waves. Many large stones farther out are broken to pieces by the weight of ice resting on them. I observed a dead flat fish (Sole) a foot long by 7 or 8 inches broad.

April 22, The ice broke up in the harbour to day and a large part of it went out.

April 20, Lovely visions of spring appear ever and anon as you wander abroad among the woods and fields. There is the Robin’s cherry laugh and his gay flight above the tree tops.  The sweet little song of the Sparrow from some sheltered sunny spray that gives a tender touch of sweetness to the calm sunshine of the balmy scene.  Quiet woody glades where last year’s wilted verdure carpets the scene and every withered plant is trod low ‘neith the cruel foot of wintery adversity; but the grand forms of the forest monarchs stand around and display their naked beauty of outline against the clear, deep circular of the cloudless sky. And the breeze that flows among their tops whispers soft vernal musick that draws the soul into sympathy with nature, while the glowing sunlight that flashes from a thousand polished sprays pours over us an intensity of warmth that speaks of returning life.

The broad stream of the river just throwing off its wintery cloak and baring its deep, clear blue bosom to the play of the breeze and the flash of the sunlight; its lines of ducks, its clouds of geese and brent and solitary gulls with snow white pinion.  Then there are little pictures of sand reaches along the shore sadly disfigured by frost and grounding ice but the feet of the silvery waves are fast smoothing them over.  With what fresh joy we welcome very feature of the scene! The level rippled sand, the rocky skerries clothed with their weeds, the groups of white wasted shells, each little denizen of the pools – Shrimps, Periwinkle, Salitrus, young Natica trailing his big foot along, the Nassa gone far out to the deep and scarcely to be found, and the Purpuria securely hid ‘neith the projecting edge of beetling rock.

April 15, I saw a flock of 100 Robins arrive this morning.  They came from the N. East and were probably moving about in social combination before dispersing on their summer’s feeding ground.  Solitary individuals had been seen a week ago. We have numbers of Song sparrows and Blue Birds, Cranes, and Golden Eyes.


York Point, Prince Edward Island — Francis Bain

May 2, At Ten O’Clock in the evening, an inch of snow lay on the ground.

April 28, Saw a crow fly 540 yards per minute. The head of the hen chickadee is now dark brown and her sides red brown.

Trailing arbutus, Source: Wikipedia

The whole aspect of the plumage by this change is richer and more pleasing. Saw many flowers (Epigaea repens) in bloom

April 27, The calm silvery tide was rapidly filling up the cove this evening as a group of noisy crows rested on the fence and bushes on its western side preparing to start home for the night. When they had all left in small detachments, I observed one old sentinel still remain in his commanding post silently, but apparently not wishing to watch when all his care had gone, and wanting to determine whether they had or no, he leaped to the highest bough of the tree, looked around, and several times sounded vigorously the cry of alarm. No one responded to it; this duty was done and he sped off homeward too. By admeasurement, I found that he flew at the rate of 500 yards in one minute.

April 24, Heard the whistling sparrow. Saw a bee coursing joyously through the free air of the open field yesterday. The alders of the brooks and swamps are hung with a profusion of brown silky catkins. They cover the shrubby vegetation like a veil spread along the dark hollows.

April 22, This evening about sunset I heard the “cong” beginning his cry. I went in pursuit of him, and found a small owl, about the size of a Robin, brown above and ash marked with brown and black below. It sat upon a secluded limb about eight feet from the ground, and accompanied each note with a motion of the body. When near to it its call sounded cook, cook, cook, but as it reverberated through the rigid stems of the leafless forest it appears of a harder tone and more lengthened.

I saw a toad making his way over the stones and sand up from the salt water. Saw a crow seize a large toad and fly off with him in his bill. He lit and proceeded to discuss him for a meal.

April 21, Heard the sweet melodious plaintive love-song of the Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush, Source: Wikipedia

April 20, This morning at sunrise a Linnet, the first of the season, poured fourth his full rapturous, joyous strain of melody from the poplars at our window. Heard a wood-cock (Golden-winged wood pecker).

April 16th, This evening I stood by the Indian camps in a glade in the woods. The death like stillness of night rested on the gloomy forest; through the opening, surrounded by the wreathed and pinnacled tops of the trees, calmly looked the golden crescent of the new moon, accompanied by her glittering phalanx of stars. A holy, reverential, solemn calm rested on the soul while quietly contemplating this scene, and the effect was heightened by the measured beat of the Saw-whether’s plaintive bell.

April 15, Snow Buntings seen? Perhaps a Meadow Pipit.

April 14, Frogs were heard today.

April 13, Shot a Song Sparrow. Its crop contained insects, mostly brown dung beetles, and a few seeds of Conicus discolour. Its colours light ash, marked with brown and black under, and brown varied with ash and black above. No trace of yellow marked its head.

Grass is springing on the sunny side of bushes.

April 12, Saw a butterfly with brown and golden edged wings. Heard the hoarse croak of brant resound through the still night air. The flock was evidently a large one. Blue birds and Song Sparrows seen as numerous as in summer, but Robins are scarce.

April 11, Robins were singing this morning. The day is delightfully clear and warm; the groves are vocal with the early songsters.

April 10, Flocks of geese going north east. Observed none going in any other direction.

April 8, Saw a flock of Snow Buntings flying and whirling over the meadows and light on their surface.

April 7, This morning as the clouds steeped in the ruby light of sunrise rolled softly from the east, a solitary robin sounded and energetically its clear flocking call and softer chuck, chuck from the topmost boughs of our grove. By its energetic deportment and constant and vigorous calling it seemed distressed with its solitude and was seeking to awake a response in some kindred bosom by its cries.

Saw a Song Sparrow this morning sit and sing by the maple grove near the swamp where I saw the first one last year. A flock of Snow Buntings flew swiftly high in the air over our place. A couple of small flocks of geese went north east and one south west. A whole flock of Robins were seen today. Flocks of Blue Birds must have arrived too, for their soft twitter is everywhere heard through the woods.

April 6, A Blackbird (Y. merula) was flying about the fields and groves in the calmy misty warm morning air, sounding its distinct unmistakable “chuck, chuck, swe-eet.” Saw a Blue Bird sitting on a lofty bough of a beech, looking about it on the warming landscape and twitting its soft melody complacently to its summer haunts.

Yesterday I saw four geese going to the south west and large flocks going to the north east. This forenoon four flocks comprising ninety geese went to the north east. Saw two Cranes in the dusky sky of evening pursuing their powerful, steady flight in close company down the river. This bird called Crane is the “Blue Heron” (Ardea herodias).

April 4, Flocks of ducks and gulls in the Elliot [West River].  Yesterday while the wind was north, I observed a flock of wild geese heading toward the north east while a flock of crows were going in the same direction. The crows flew much faster than the geese and lost no lee way in their course, while the latter only succeeded in making an easterly direction.

Real Time Climate Change: Farm Diaries and Phenology in Prince Edward Island

(A guest article posted by Joshua MacFadyen on

It is 24 April, and although some Canadians have been mowing grass for weeks the spring plants on Prince Edward Island are only beginning to overcome the cold nights and occasional flurries that visit this island in April. Still, this is an early spring by historical accounts. On this day in 1879, John MacEachern recorded the following diary entry in Rice Point:

“Ice drifting out of Harbour and Nine Mile Creek, boats can get to Town now, a Ltr [boat] from East Point [arrived] back at Governors Island Tuesday.”

The day before he had recorded a similar view from the farm:

“pulverizing lea land today & yesterday, ice still unbroken outside harbour & inside St Peters Island.”

Thirteen years earlier the ice was more fluid, moving along the South Shore of the Island on 18-19 April until there was finally “no ice in sight” on the 23rd.  This did not mean winter had passed; MacEachern noted “frosty ground, hard all day,” on 24 April, and frost deep enough to prevent stumping and ploughing all that week.  Usually we think of historical weather reports and almanacs as about as exciting as reading the phone book, but diary entries like these reveal dramatic changes in our environment and our climate when we read them in real time.[click to continue…]

Mud Isle: Mussel Mud Digging on PEI

This morning I wrote an article for NiCHE Canada’s blog on the use of mussel mud fertilizer. The extraction and spreading of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island’s frozen fields was a winter activity recorded by all of the 19th century contributors to Real Time Farming. I argued that PEI farmers improved food security and the productivity of mixed farming through the innovative use of mussel mud, a local, organic fertilizer extracted from estuaries. However, mud digging quickly became unsustainable as commercial and Provincial outfits exhausted the mud in several rivers and destroyed some of the world’s best oyster habitats. Farmers clashed with fishermen over rights to shell beds, and Federal officials ultimately encouraged farmers to adopt chemical fertilizers.

In this Real Time Farming post I have collected the mud-digging updates of the farmers, mapped some of their journeys from estuaries to upland fields, and shown how farmers adapted to new work patterns and a new resource. Farmers like the Andersons and the MacEacherns began to rely more heavily on nearby sea manure in this period, whereas farmers like Roderick Munn bought completely new farms in part, it seems, for their access to mussel mud.

York Point

Robert Harris Mussel Mud Digging, Undated, Source: Confederation Centre Art Gallery

In the winter of 1866, Francis Bain mentioned only that he was “at work on the ice,” but he did not explain exactly what he was doing. It is quite possible that he was digging some sort of sea manure for fertilizing his farmland in spring. The West (Eliot) River and North River were the most important mud digging locations in Prince Edward Island, and Bain would have been very familiar with the sight of dozens of sleighs crossing the ice to haul the rich fertilizer to their fields. Bain’s prolific journals rarely indicated who he was with or what they were doing; his focus was on wildlife. But by 1886, we know that Bain brought samples of mussel mud to a farm exhibit, and he described the natural history of mussel mud for readers of the Prince Edward Island Agriculturalist (March 11, 1886):

Every lowly tribe of the deep has brought its tribute of the store-house of manurial wealth. Oysters, mussels, quahogs, clams, the showy valved petracola and the ebony littorina, the delicate cuminia and the great rugged spired urosalpinx, corraline and starfish, sponge and protozoa lived on and were entombed in its mass, while a thousand harvests of algae added their varied foliage to swell its riches.

Rice Point

The journals of John MacEachern are a useful indicator of the shift in PEI agricultural history in the 1860s and 1870s, a shift that occurred as farmers realized the benefit of applying mussel mud to hay fields. High acidity in the soil caused a shortage in food and fodder, and Island farmers began to spread calcareous mussel mud in the period as a solution. In 1866, the winter months were quiet in Rice Point, and the MacEachern family hauled firewood across the ice for consumers in Charlottetown. By 1879, a new activity had made the winter months busier than ever. MacEachern was near the end of his life at this point, and it appears that he did not go with his sons to the mud diggers.

Continue reading

Prince Edward Island Beaches and Bain’s “Old Friends” Released from Winter’s Ice, 1866


Francis Bain sketch of PEI shells, Nov 3, 1878.
Source: PARO, Image No. 4.2353.92

On this day in nineteenth century Prince Edward Island, the farm landscape is only just beginning to emerge from beneath the ice and snow. The shores of York Point, at the confluence of the North and West (Eliot) Rivers at visible for the first time this spring, and the ice sheets break away from the shore and move seaward with great flair — or so it appears in the journals of farmer-naturalist Francis Bain. Bain takes a walk along the shore and is reunited with his “old friends the shell-fish and sea-weeds.”  He frequently sketches fauna such as these pliactula, perri-winkle, natica, turris, and calyptra drawn in 1878.

In Rice Point, farmers like John MacEachern observe simply that the “Ice [is] off, and a boat crossed the ferry yesterday.” The movement of the ice began on 2 April with “ice drifting off again,” but rather than watching at the shore, this farmer was cutting poles for his spring fencing, following the ferry passage to Charlottetown, and celebrating the life of a neighbour, “old Mrs Bell, Nine Mile Creek” who “died aged about 90.”

These two accounts from 1866, show two different perspectives of rural society and environment. Bain ignores all but the natural world even though he had been at work on the ice days before, and MacEachern focuses on work, community, and transportation.  Yet they are connected, physically and emotionally, by the same seam of ice.  They respect its power and study its movements together, knowing that it will soon uncover a warmer world of natural beauty and resources.

York Point, Prince Edward Island, 1866

“April 3,  The body of ice in the harbour, agitated by the heavy north wind and full tide, broke loose from its mooring and swung down to the entrance.  The broad reach of amethyste-blue water, gleaming with brilliant coruscations of light, and streaked with white lines of fome, look peculiarly striking and refreshing as an earnest of the onward march of approaching summer.  Flocks of wild geese dot the chrystal borders of these beautiful lakes and repose quietly in the genial sunlight or dapple for their weedy meal in the clear bosom of the newly awakened waves.

This afternoon the ice broke off from our shore of the Elliot and drifted into the channel which was previously thawed open. In the evening I went down to the sandy beech [sic] thus suddenly exposed, to enjoy a walk among my old friends the shell-fish and sea-weeds.  As I passed over the sive like patches of fine sand perforated by the pholades, but a very rare, faint squirt of water arose from the animals beneath where a shower of energetic spouts would have hailed me in the summer. I dug in the sand for some of the fish; they seemed near the surface. I sought in vain for whelks on the broad band of fine rippled sand, and also for the sandy mound of the buried natica. Here periwinkles were also very rare, and these very sluggish. Far out in the long sea-weed they were more abundant.”

Signs of Spring: Francis Bain and PEI Flora and Fauna, March 1866

Skua: Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

York Point, Prince Edward Island — Francis Bain


March 30, Saw a heavy winged Skua soaring and swooping over the reaches of blue water opened in the ice on the river.

March 28, It is a delightful clear, warm day with wind from the soft South West.  Heard a wood pecher hammering on an old dry rampike as they are accustomed to do in summer.

Saw a pair of white fronted shell ducks sweep with whistling wings across the sky towards the south.

In sheltered glades in the woods the dry beds of wilted and browned ferns and the soft moss clothed hillocks, warmed and dried with the glowing sun of spring, are delightfully agreeable in spots, like outposts of summer thrust on the retreating winter.  Here are evident the first signs of restored animation in the insect world. Moygales, rhyncotous insects, a small grasshopper, small green bugs, and black mailed lady birds at times sport their varied colours for an hour in the warm sunlight.

March 19, Saw a snow bunting. Through the weather is sharp, small groups of crows are plenty today.

March 17, This afternoon we were at work on the ice.  The day was delightful. A gentle soft and warm breath of wind came from the South West, and the clear sun diffused a warmth like a day in May.  Bright silvery clouds, shaded with the brightest blue, floated over the serene sky. Near the horizon they were softly tinged with ruby.  Around the land, divested of snow, showed bright colours of purple and green varied with the vivid red of the headlands. All this fair scene was reflected on the broad, mirror-like surface of the ice, rendered resplendent by a thin stratum of water.  Small groups of crows were continually passing through across the landscape and filled the still warm air with the familiar notes of their call, making the scene more spring-like.  ‘Twas here that I heard the first deep-toned note of the wild goose’s cry come from the far esther, and saw thirty three geese in a long straight line sweep across the brow of the southern heavens.

On Thin Ice: Crossing the North River, PEI in a Lightning Storm, 1866

In this post, PEI naturalist Francis Bain describes his short journey home from ‘Town’ just before dark.  As he crossed the North River, a thunder and lightning storm approached from the south and turned the evening sky into a vivid display of light and water.

March 16, 1866, York Point, Prince Edward Island – Francis Bain

PEI photography by Stephen Desroches

“This evening about six o’clock I was coming home from town [Charlottetown]. The surface of the fast desolving ice was covered with water from the long continued thaw. The landscape was shrowded in fog, and the dimly seen, distant headlands and hills reflected their darkness on the mist of the heavens. Presently a few large and scattered drops of rain fell through the fog and it thinned.  Then a faint flash of lightning arrested my attention.  Scarcely perceptible was the faint low murmur of the thunder that followed from the southern part of the sky.  In a few minutes more there was another flash more vivid, with a louder report. The storm was coming up from the south; and when it came overhead the flashes, visible in the deepening twilight, were most intense and the thunder exceedingly loud. During the time it passed over heavy rain fell.”

The same storm caught the attention of John MacEachern in Rice Point, whose more prosaic diary noted on Saturday the 17th (St. Patrick’s Day) that the “Irish Society walked; heavy thunder and lightning the previous evening. On Saturday it was fine, ground soft, at night hard frost.” His son Doug, hauled potatoes across the ice to Charlottetown, although the river ice was weak and the “Gulf open.”  These two very different descriptions portray a landscape emerging from winter’s ice and the range of conditions these farmers encountered in their travels.

Early Spring Flora

York Point, Prince Edward Island — Francis Bain

March 12, 1866

Catkin on a Willow source: Wikipedia

“The white silky catkins of the willows (S. Mulenburginia) are bursting from their dark purple sheaths.  The buds of the populars (P. Arenaoloidis) are also swelling.”

Francis Bain’s Late-Winter Birding and Geology, 1866

York Point, Prince Edward Island, 1866

March 2, Shot a Red-bellied nut hatch. I always supposed this bird to be the wren and called it such, but a careful examination of this specimen has shown me my error. It has a long straight bill with the mandibles of equal length and forming a sharp chisel point. Its mouth is capable of great and free extension, which is not the case with the chickadee’s.  Its tongue is tipped like that birds. Its cropless intestines contained much gravel, a few fragments of insects and seeds.

This bird feeds among the tops of trees more than the chickadee who frequents the lower zone of foliage and smaller firs and spruces.

March 1, saw two Grossbeaks, apparently a male and female, sitting on the tops of firs behind the house.

Feb 27, Shot a Chickadee. Its muscular gizzard contained geometrinoe, legs and plates of insects, and what appeared to be egg cases. With these were mixed fragments of bark and fir leaves. It has no crop. The jugal bone of the upper mandible instead of being articulated alone, as is usual, to the tyrnpanic, is so joined to the articular of the lower mandible, that whenever the mouth is opened the upper mandible is drawn backwards and the lower protruded so as to form a sharp pointed shovel.  With this it shovels off the close set egg cases of insects from the smooth bark. The tongue is broad in the point, and furnished with a fringe of comparatively long, stiff bristles.  This is admirably adapted to brush up the minute, numerous, and nutritious eggs when the covering is removed.

Feb 27, I observe in sandstone rocks bands and patches of yellow and ochre colour. I find a specimen of this turns to the general red when ignited; When treated with sulphuric acid it effervesces strongly though it is an exceedingly friable stone. It, and probably much of the kind, is I think coloured with carbonate of iron (FeO, CO2). The carbonic acid is derived from decayed organic matter and the abstracted oxygen from the surrounding peroxide on iron (Fe2 O3).  When the forging mineral has been ignited 2 per cent of its weight is lost as also its power of effervescing with acids. When freshly ignited also, a solution of it with water exhibits no traces of lime when treated with carbonic acid.

Feb 25, Heard the soft surprised call of the Gossbeak from among the dark tops of the snowless firs.

The depth of strata from Canseaux to Blockhouse point inclusive computing the average inclination at 4.5 (or 42?) degrees is 600 feet.

Feb 24, We have South winds now and the most delightful weather. The air is soft and balmy; the sky is clear and of a light warm hue; feathery streaks of delicate circus mark its gentle brow. The fields save by the fences and groves are divested of snow; the ice is a clear brilliant surface covered with a thin sheet of water; the red headlands come out along its border and reflect their majestic forms on its bosom. Altogether the scenery is most spring-like.

February 19, It is thawing fast with heavy rain. The fields are getting very bare, the vast amount of snow is thawing from the roads, the ice is one glass of chrystal covered with water and is being fast penetrated with holes where the water runs down.

Feb 12, Saw a flock of about 70 crows crowding about the entrails of a pig at Government point.

Feb 11, Saw a flock of six crows. Warm weather always awakes the gregarious instincts of these birds. It has been severe weather for five weeks and it was rare to see one.  The wind is south and it is delightfully mild.

Francis Bain’s Journey to Governor’s Island

Today’s RTF update is a few days early but we print it on the occasion of the Nature Conservancy’s purchase of Governor’s Island, Prince Edward Island. Almost 146 years ago, Francis Bain made this “long desired” journey when the weather was clear enough to make his natural observations and the ice thick enough to bear the weight of his party (although the crossing almost ended in disaster). His descriptions of old growth forests and fauna such as the Great Snowy Owl are of great interest to environmental historians and to residents of PEI today. As the 1935 aerial photograph of Governor’s Island shows (below) the natural environment observed by Bain in 1866 had been extensively disturbed by the early twentieth century.

Aerial photograph of Governor's Island in 1935, Source:

York Point, Prince Edward Island, 3 March 1866

“I visited Governor’s Island today. The day was hazy and inauspicious, but I determined not to lose the opportunity of making a long desired the harbour, my horse fell through the ice. Three men who accompanied me assisted me to take him out. When we dragged him out on the ice the poor fellow lay as if dead. On the east side of the harbour’s mouth a high escarpment of red rocks, crowned with a dark growth of firs, towers above the level floor of the ice, and presents a grand and beautiful appearance. Its magnificence is increased by the wood-covered land rising high above it. Here the beds slope inland at right angles to the general direction of the coast. Five miles across the smooth crystal ice of the Bay brought me to the shores of the island. This broad expanse of ice is intersected by dangerous cracks, caused by the rising and falling of the tide. When the tide is low the ice, falling into the hollow basin of the bay, occupies the segment of a circle. When it rises the ice rises into the shorter position of the chord. In accommodating itself to this varying length, the ice cracks in definite lines. At these it is constantly heaved and broken by the constant flux and

Governor Island, consisiting of about two hundres acres is low and flat, its big West ridges not rising more than fifteen feet above the water. Its soil is a heavy brown clay where the slight depressions are swamps. As I passed over its level meadows, I observed everywhere the wilted stems and downy heads of rushes. Aster silicifolia was also abundant, Selz heal particularly so. Spruces, stubby firs, stunted birches, and populars composed the young growth. A remnant of the primitive growth of magnificent birches (B. alba) and maples still was standing. I saw a Great Snowey Owl. It was apparently larger than the

Snowy Owl, Source: Wikipedia

great owl. Its wings were longer, its body less clumsy, its head smaller. Its flight was strong like the hawks. It was nearly a pure white colour.

I discovered a section of the rock at the west end. It was a brown sandstone, like the fossiliferous rocks of St. Peter’s Island and Gallows Point. It dipped N.W. at an angle varying from three to five degrees. I saw fragments of grey rock and hard chockolate-coloured rock that invariably accompanies organic remains. The surface of the island is furrowed longitudinally with about five ridges and their intermediate furrows depressions, showing its formation to be of alternate hard and soft strata. I observed a considerable number of large boulders of grey granite. They also occur on Crown Point.

Having explored the island, I left it at the east end. Here, on the bar are heaped up immense tumuli of fragment ice, there [sic] white and pointed ridges rising as high as the loftiest summits of the island.

I think the Owl feeds on mice for I saw many of its tracks on the snow in the fields. Chickadees tenant the bushes of this lonely islet.”