Earth Day in Montreal

We were a little slow waking up this morning. Might have been due to the change in time, or possibly due to the fact that we’re beginning to relax on this vacation, or because we simply didn’t get out of bed. All the crashing and banging however, conspired us out into the day.

Earth Day 2006 would not go unnoticed. Normally, I don’t really acknowledge Earth Day. The first one was a novel idea, but years later it’s just something for people to murmur about much as they would about that odd uncle who wears underwear on the outside of his pants. It’s not something that most people — myself included — take seriously.

Today would be different.

The trip down to Franklin was long. Getting out of Montreal was the hard part. The local native tribe on the south shore effectively cut down one of the two spans of the Mercier bridge to show solidarity to their cousins battling in Ontario for their rights and privileges. Admittedly, I didn’t know too much about the affair, only that it was echoing the Oka standoff of a decade ago — though without the deaths and the famous native-mountie face-to-face pictures.

In principle, I respect and support the natives in what they’re doing by cutting down access across their lands (Highway 138 runs right across their territory). In reality though, I can’t quite get why it would make sense to tick off Montrealers when it’s Torontonians they should be going after. Maybe the Ottawa crowd. Montreal isn’t exactly insular, but they get along with their native neighbours a lot more friendly than those in Ontario.

The shutdown also caused us to miscalulate the directions. We missed the Highway 30 turnoff and took a bit longer to get where we were going. But eventually, we did manage to pull into Phil and Lynn’s driveway shortly after the Vinyl Cafe had signed off for another week.

The lane was lined with trees still barren of leaves. It’s still early spring here in the Chateauguay area, and leaves are only starting to bud. Things won’t likely green up here for a couple of more weeks. The farm yard was greening after a long winter, and would be the precuror to the rest of the massive property. A large two-storey white and green farm house recently clad with what appeared to be aluminum siding stood on the west side; an old dilapitated barn on the east. The barn had obvious extensions. The laneway snaked around the barn on the north side and continued into the orchards beyond the living portion of the land.

Phil was out back of the house pressing fresh apple juice with some apples that had been stored for the winter. The apples were grown fresh on the farm — a former apple farm turned hobby farm. Phil was tossing apples into small hopper while the kids were running around him, the press, and the young girl turning the crank that chewed up the apples and dropped them into a cheesecloth-lined bin underneath. When there was enough apple mulch in the bin, Phil would place the pressing lid in, and the press crank turned until the pulp-laden amber juice flowed into a plastic bucket. Not the most elegant operation, but boy did that juice taste good.

There were four families there, including ours and Phil’s. Several children, including a very young girl, barely two years old. The group of us wandered about back and forth, in and out of the house meeting one another, until Cole (one of the boys) called out that there was a baby pigeon in the barn loft. This propagated a temporary mass migration into the barn for a look. No pigeon, but a wonderful opportunity for photographs! I love old buildings. There is not a better subject than man-made architecture.

When I finished my run, I called Therese to arrange for a meeting time with her and Stuart (and their daughter Allison) later that afternoon. We talked for quite a long time before I finally had to put an end to the call, lest we run out of things to discuss later on. I resumed the group running a scavenger hunt on the east side of the property, just as the topic of conversation was the price of apples from China and how they were killing off the local apple growers who can’t compete.

It’s a familiar tune lately. China does everything cheaper than North America. Most of the goods we buy are made or grown in China. The United States has a massive trade deficit with China. I don’t know what Canada’s is, but I suspect it’s a little lopsided. Being affluent North Americans, we are prone to buying a lot of cheap stuff.

The price of gas — competely unrelated to Phil and Lynn’s farm — is also causing consternation lately. The price of oil is now over US$70 a barrel, which is causing gas prices to spike again. North America still has among some of the lowest prices in the world, and we freak out when gas is over $1.00 at the pumps (in Canada, anyway). Today, the car was filled at a station priced at $1.20. $60 in total. I’ve never paid that much for gas. I have to use premium in the Mini and I’ve never paid over $45. My next fill up is going to hurt. A lot.

But I have to agree with Allen — gas prices need to keep going up. Canada needs the $1.50/litre price — and higher. Those prices will drive us out of complacency and start to look at alternative sources for the wasteful energy that we’re always using. It’ll make us choose between the smaller efficient cars and the monstrosities that Detroit is still producing. If it weren’t for the fact that I need to start looking at cars like the Honda Fit or the Mazda 3 Sport (not because it’s a “Sport”, but because of storage), I’d buy a Smart car. Family is everything though.

Phil and I had a conversation about how prices will eventually reset in the apple world once everyone starts buying from China. Distributors will get in the way, as they always do, and the old case of supply and demand (a.k.a. greed and price gouging) will eventually put things back in order, restoring balance to the force and ensuring that prices are approximately in competition. But it won’ happen quickly, and the local farmers will still take a hit in the short term. It’s just a sad fact.

While the others finished the scavenger hunt, Phil and I turned to politics for a while. I’m no expert, but I have developed an interesting memory of politics, which has formed a few opinions. Phil and I discussed Alberta’s future now that King Ralph is headed out the door, and what will become of the federal Liberal party if Bob Rae successfully wins a potential bid for the leadership. We almost missed the cue to head in for pancakes.

While the outside of Phil and Lynn’s house would look appropriate in pretty much any city, the inside is pure farm house. Wooden floors cut from wide boards, country-style cupboards, benches instead of seats around the table. A very warm, homey feeling that you just don’t get with the most recent set from IKEA. All of us were crammed in the kitchen, waiting for the onset of the pancakes, which Allen had been preparing almost since we arrived. Whole wheat with sesame seeds, fruit salad, and real maple syrup. (We are in maple syrup territory, after all.)

I think I ate about eight of them. Delicious, fluffy — but not too thick — and lots of fruit. Phil and I got into a discussion of making websites. (You can take the habit out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of the habit.) One of the neat things about working for Critical Mass is that you inevitably learn all the “right” ways about making a website, which are largely transferrable to others who operate on much smaller scales. I have no compunction about doing that, either. Best practices are aways good to hand down, especially to those who’ll never directly compete with you. It makes the entire industry better and stronger.

Following the pancakes, we all ventured out for a wagon ride. This being a farm, there was a tractor and a flatbed wagon ideal for hauling things around the yard. I gather Phil’s still learning the trade, but he seems to have the idea down. The tractor moved without much difficulty, and huddled up for warmth (I neglected to bring my jacket, and brought only my fleece), we went off for a ride.

Phil and Lynn’s farm is 110 acres. It’s hard to imagine a piece of property that size. The footprint of their house alone is the size of our entire property, and the house is dwarfed by the farmland. The parcel is over a kilometre in length, and about 250 metres wide (that’s a guess — I’m sure you can do the math to figure the rest out). The massive chunk of paradise cost $60k less than our tiny place in Calgary — we’re living in the wrong place. Only the south quarter is the farm area, though — the rest is all densely wooded, part of a nature preserve. Phil’s even found deer antlers out there. A beaver lodge is setting up domain not far into the forest, damming the small creeks there, and cutting down trees normally vulnerable only to chainsaws. Short stone walls define areas for long-forgotten reasons. A turn of the last century thresher rusts away amongst the trees, wheels half sunk into the ground.

Lynn and Phil make the whole event educational. I don’t know if their kids are home-schooled — if so, they are in good hands. They are exceptionally intelligent and very good teachers. It started to rain as we started to head back towards the wagon along a well-rutted dirt road that leads to a sugar shack somewhere deep in the woods, hastening our retreat to the house. From there, we said our “goodbyes” and retraced our path back to Montreal, sitting in the lineup over the Mercier bridge for almost 3/4 of an hour.

At least the protest is passive. It could quite easily get a lot uglier.

It was almost 17:45 before we arrived at Stuart and Therese’s. Allison, their barely 2-year old daughter, is still scared of me, even when presented with a peace offering of a small teddy bear. Therese, pregnant with their next child, received chocolates. Stuart only got me. I think he got shafted out of that deal.

While Allison romped around the room, the four of us chatted around the kitchen table, eating guacamole and chips, and catching up after six months of rare chatting. I miss my friends a lot. I don’t see them often, and when I do see them it never seems to be long enough. I barely saw them in August at the wedding, and wished I had spent more time with them.

Things hadn’t changed too much since I’d last seen them. One of their two siamese cats had died in February. Therese is still heartbroken over the loss, which I competely understand. I still miss Spaz, and it’s been two and a half years. Siamese have a way of getting into you, and it’s hard to get them out.

Dinner had been a debate, but eventually we settled on Central Pizza, about two blocks from their townhome. Stuart and I scooted quite literally around the block to pick the pizzas (two of them) and returned before they got cold. Allison dove into the olives on the vegetarian pizza while Stuart and I laid seige to the hawaiian.

Allison went to bed not long afterwards, and it took a while for her to finally got to sleep. Therese and Stuart had to tag-team trips up before Allison finally dropped off like a rock. That left the rest of us to chat, eat chocolate, and recount various tales of whatever that came to mind. And we chatted about whatever until well after 23:00, when I realized that it was key for Therese and Stuart to go to bed and get some rest. After finalizing the plans for dim sum, we headed back.

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